Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name in News?

Wednesday night was an indication of how a satirist and comedian has been able to outflank serious journalists in earning a reputation of integrity.   Stewart had two Mideast activists on his show, a Jewish human rights activist Anna Baltzer and a Palestinian pro-democracy advocate Mustafa Barghouti.   Their message: the way to peace in Palestine is through diplomacy and non-violent reconciliation.   They criticized Israel for creating the problem through its long repression of the Palestinians, and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  They suggested that such conditions certainly can inspire extremist reactions.   They spoke of reason and non-violence.

At the time I didn’t realize I was watching something extremely controversial.   In fact, I graded papers, thinking the “good” part of the show was over.   Only this morning do I read that pro-Israel groups are incensed, angry that Stewart wasn’t “fair and balanced” enough to have a hardline Israel proponent on the show, and calling for a boycott of the Daily Show.

Before taping, the Daily Show and the two guests were pressured to cancel and not go on.   It was clear that powerful forces did not want this discussion to air on US television, and if the station involved had been CNN, FOX or MSNBC, it certainly would not have.   The mainstream stations would have wilted under pressure and threats from pro-Israeli voices, feeling forced to talk about “Palestinian suicide bombers” and focus on this as a conflict that must be settled by one side “winning.”   Such a discussion would not be allowed, it would risk advertising dollars and generate negative publicity.

Yet the myth of “fair and balanced” news is more poisonous to accurate reporting than even the real existence of bias.  Consider: if someone is talking about the holocaust, does one need to have a holocaust denier present to have the news be fair and balanced?   If one is interviewing a free marketeer does one have to have a Communist present to rebut the points?   If you interview survivors of 9-11, are you required to have Islamic extremists present the pro-terrorism viewpoint in order to have balance?   No, I’m not saying Israel’s position is akin to any of these, only that the idea of ‘fair and balanced’ is really always a biased and subjective call.   The range of ‘acceptible positions’ is relatively narrow, and it is not at all uncommon to leave out many perspectives.

Jon Stewart is Jewish.   One of his guests was Jewish, the other Palestinian.   Could it be that the Israeli hardliners are really upset about the fact that a perspective friendly to the concerns of the Palestinians is being put forth by Jews?   Does that perhaps risk undercutting the myth that there are only two points of view, the Jewish and the Palestinian, and that the question is whether terrorism is worse than Israeli security actions?   Is the real threat the reframing of the debate, meaning that the pro-Israel side can’t frame it in a way favorable to themselves?

Perhaps one way to be fair and balanced is to consider different ways of framing a debate.   It can be a Jew and a Palestinian discussing ways to peacefully solve the problem, or it can be Jews and Palestinians arguing about who is more to blame.   In the former, violence is seen as misguided form both sides, and each are called to take steps to bring a peaceful resolution to the problem.   In the latter, you have to choose which side’s violence is legitimate by deciding which kind of violence is worse.  In the former, both can work together for mutual benefit.  In the latter, one side must win and the other side lose.

If the mainstream media stays “fair and balanced” by going with the latter perspective without taking into account the Barghouti-Baltzer perspective, isn’t Stewart doing the public a service by showing the other perspective, one generally silenced by the mainstream media?   Isn’t the courage to do so in the face of massive pressure from those who want to shape the public framing of the debate something we want from our newspeople?   Why do they not provide it, why do we rely on our satirists?   This isn’t the first time I’ve made this point about Stewart’s contribution, I also brought it up when he had his monumental interview with Jim Cramer.

Yet it may seem odd that an academic whose methodology has involved analyzing media (the subject matter has been German foreign policy) should promote a comedian to the status of the most trusted name in news.   Jon Stewart is not truly a journalist nor a newsperson.    He should not be the most trusted name in news, and if pushed I’m sure I could find a number of serious journalists who do dig and are unafraid of pressure; indeed, most news anchors are not true journalists but good looking hosts.   Still, Stewart does seem to show the hypocrisies and dis-ingenuity of politicians of all stripes in a way most mainstream journalists do not.

He mocks the way the mainstream news media covered a so-called “Obama war on Fox,” and then juxtaposed a Cal Thomas condemnation of Obama for trying to silence the media with un-American pressure with praise he gave a year earlier for the Bush Administration’s similar attack on MSNBC.  If only the mainstream media would out hypocrisy so clearly — and Stewart shows no mercy to the Democrats on such things either.

The problem seems to be that the news media is caught in a voyeuristic effort to present different narratives without seriously trying to investigate the internal coherence and evidential support of each one.    They bow to pressure prefer a ‘he said, she said’ reporting to ‘what might be wrong with what each of them said.’   The result?   People trust a comedian more than their news media for understanding current events.  And, as much as I enjoy Jon Stewart, we shouldn’t have to leave it up to our satirists and comedians to help us critically assess world events.

  1. #1 by Josh on October 30, 2009 - 19:06

    I think you’ve got a point. However, it would be nice to know that Stewart wouldn’t be afraid to have just two pro-Israel guests on his program. That doesn’t mean he HAS to, but that he wouldn’t be afraid to frame the debate in Israel’s favor. If he had done that, everyone would be talking about how Stewart was unfair toward the Palestinian position.

    Let me just say that I have never seen Jon Stewart’s program, so I don’t really know what his political leanings are. Overall, it doesn’t matter to me. He’ll analyze things the way he wants and others will analyze things the way they want. Like you said, “fair and balanced” is a myth.

    I think that local news programs are much more honest in their reporting than any big name news program. WCSH 6 featured a debate about Question 1 in Maine the other day. Obviously, they had two representatives (one from the “Yes” crowd and the other from the “No” crowd), but the moderators asked very good questions. They were not questions that were meant to “grill”, but to honestly understand the logic coming from each viewpoint. It was the best debate I had ever seen concerning the gay marriage issue.

  2. #2 by classicliberal2 on October 31, 2009 - 00:56

    The reaction to such a thing, even on something like the Daily Show, is absolutely standard operation procedure, and has been for decades. The, broadly speaking, Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful in the U.S., and you’re quite right–a discussion of that sort wouldn’t have even been allowed to happen in any other major press outlet. They get their way with the government. No one gets an important position in the government having to do with foreign policy unless they approve, as Obama learned earlier this year when the Lobby, fronted by an American SPY for Isreal, then on trial for espionage, was allowed to torpedo his nominee to head the NIC. And they get their way with the press. As Jimmy Carter noted a few months ago, the “Israeli perspective”–it’s actually just the perspective of the Israeli far right–is the only one generally represented in U.S. media. The Lobby can be incredibly petty in what they attack as “anti-Israeli.” The Lobby doesn’t hesitate to deploy the smear of “anti-Semitism” or “revisionist” to crush their enemies (which, of course, cheapens what should be serious charges for no other purpose than serving the propaganda needs of a foreign power).

    Your surprise at the controversy surprises me.

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on October 31, 2009 - 14:16

    I’ve always found Jon Stewart to be incredibly entertaining, the few times I really get to watch him. Although I have noticed that often times he seems to get more to the heart of a matter than most other news organizations. And Josh- Stewart is a liberal, politically speaking. But he of course doesn’t let that get in the way of his job of making fun of politicians and viewpoints put forth by any side.

    Thats the one reason I like, Jake Tapper, part of ABC’s Whitehouse press crew. He leans to the left, but will ask the tough questions, to 1- get a very clear understanding of what the administration is trying to get across, and 2- hold their talk and their walk to the fire, make sure it lines up, as well as make sure their arguments are sound.

  4. #4 by renaissanceguy on November 1, 2009 - 00:06

    Scott, knowledgeable people already know that there are moderate and liberal Israelis and moderate and liberal Palestinians. Stewart has let the uninterested and formerly uninformed know about them. I think what he did is good.

    However, it would be just as fair and balanced for him to invite official representatives of Israel and the Palestinian authority. Such representatives, after all, are the ones who can speak officially. They represent, in a sense, the only positions that matter in practical terms. Inviting people who represent a minority opinion (minority in terms of power) makes for an interesting show but does nothing to present what is actually happening and what is likely to happen.

    Thus, Stewart was acting as an advocate–giving air time to a minority movement in hopes, I assume, of promoting that movement. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s not usually consider the function of journalism to advocate for one group or movement or another.

    I think we need to end all the “fair and balanced” nonsense (or the bias vs. non-bias nonsense) and just allow people to watch various points of view and reach their own conclusions.

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on November 1, 2009 - 00:58

    So, when Stewart has prominent conservatives like William Kristol, who he has had on many times, or John McCain, does that mean he’s advocating for them? I guess what gets me is the pressure put on him by the Israeli lobby to try to make him cancel the show or to get the guests not to appear.

    I do disagree that only those with minority of power does nothing to show what is happening or might happen. They are talking about what is happening and what could happen — and they are an active movement. Since Stewart has had on prominent conservatives (and Kristol is certainly a hawk on Israel), it seems to me that the real thing bothering the hardline Israel side is that two Jews and a Palestinian were presenting an alternative approach,and they must have feared that this would have an impact, otherwise they wouldn’t have exerted so much pressure.

  6. #6 by renaissanceguy on November 1, 2009 - 11:32

    Thanks, Scott, for poiting out my faulty thinking. I should not have said, at least not so strongly, that Stewart was acting as an advocate. You’re right. I should have stuck with my view that he was educating the uninformed. I think that was his main motive. His secondary motive was probably to publicize this view and perhaps to promote it.

    I think that the Isreali lobby has the right to do whatever they want, as long as they do not hurt anyone. If they want to put pressure on people to promote their agenda, they have that right. You might not like it, and I can see why you don’t.

    I did not watch the program. Did they discuss what should be done with Jerusalem? That’s probably the hardest issue to grapple with.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on November 5, 2009 - 22:10

      I don’t recall all the specifics, but you’re right, that is the hardest issue. It’s too bad the Arabs didn’t just accept the UNSCOP proposal in 1948 and accept then that Israel would exist. I don’t mean that the Arabs are to blame for everything since then — both sides share lots of blame for how things have gone. But the whole thing might have been avoided if only war hadn’t been the choice in 1948.

  7. #8 by patrice on November 4, 2009 - 15:42

    The Israeli-Palestinian issue aside, you’re not the only person to suggest JS is the most trusted journalist.

    Time did a poll this summer (unscientific), and JS ran away with it.

    The New York Times did an article last year asking if he was the most trusted MAN IN AMERICA!!! The article quotes a Pew Research Center poll on the most respected journalist, where JS comes in 4th, tied with Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Dan Rather and Anderson Cooper.

    It is a sad thing that the fake journalist is the one people trust most to tell it like it is. I know I do.

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