"Stewart Tapped As Election News Guru"
The Times Union (Albany, NY)
December 11, 2000
by David Daley

 

So here's just another example of how strange this presidential campaign is. Chris Matthews is being parodied on "Saturday Night Live," and Jon Stewart is a regular pundit on the "Today" show and "Larry King Live."

The tagline for Comedy Central's election coverage -- Indecision 2000 -- has become reality. "That was a joke," says Stewart. "We had no idea that people were going to run with that." He had even less of an idea that satirical late-night shows like "The Daily Show" would be given the somewhat dubious honor of providing young people with campaign news. One poll, by the Pew Center, revealed that 47 percent of people between 18 and 29 get "a lot" of their election news from the late-night shows.

"The key word there," Stewart observes, "is Pew."

And told about an MTV study that suggested these shows might play some role in increasing awareness -- as 75 percent of those between 18 and 24 could name the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates without prompting -- Stewart is unamused and unimpressed.

"It's four letters," Stewart says, to remember Gore or Bush.

Yet despite the self-deprecation at the heart of his comedy, Stewart -- perhaps more than any other observer of Campaign 2000 -- got at the heart of how our campaigns have become a theater of the absurd, and mocked the process while mourning the deterioration of public debate.

Asked to critique the first presidential debate on "Today," for example, Stewart cringed over the way media analysis sets the expectations bar before the debate, and then grades the candidates afterward on how well they met those expectations.

"This isn't Olympics boxing. This is a presidential race. And the pollsters and even a lot of the analysis has to ease up," Stewart said. "I mean, what happened was they set up the expectations in that first debate as, literally, if George Bush proved he could feed himself, that was presidential. And if Al Gore blinked, he had warmth. And that's the way they judge the debate. And they didn't even deal with the fact that when issues came up, George Bush's proposals were literally, 'I think Americans are good. And should help themselves.' "

But despite the attention paid to the way comics covered campaign 2000 this year, Stewart downplays his own influence and the weirdness of sitting on the "Today" set in a leather jacket analyzing the campaign. "Now it's weird to be anywhere at 7:30 a.m. That's when I should be fast asleep with my dog," says Stewart, 38, from his Comedy Central office. "But I'm not taken seriously. The difference between myself and the analysts on a show like "Today" is when I'm introduced they either say, 'Now for a look at the lighter side of politics.' Or, 'Comedians have been making hay with this election, for that take...' It's never Gore's speech that sets up my segment. It's Jay Leno's joke."

Stewart attributes much of the attention paid to humorists this year as simply a side effect of 24-hour news networks desperate for new angles and new commentators just to fill all that airtime. He doesn't see comics having a political agenda. ("Many of us are Hamiltonian Federalists," he cracks.) And he doesn't have time for pundits like Tim Russert who suggest political humor helps salve the country's partisan wounds.
 
"These guys have 24 hours to fill. They've got to come up with something," Stewart says. "... The stress they talk about the country being under seems to me entirely a media invention. The media's under stress on this. The politicians can keep going if they want. I still have to rake my leaves."

 

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Copyright © 2000 The Hearst Corporation. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Melly for the article.

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