The most quotable sound bite to emerge from Jon Stewart’s on-air clash with Chris Wallace – the host of “The Daily Show” telling the host of “Fox News Sunday” he’s “insane” – obscured perhaps the most revealing part of the alternately humorous and contentious session on media bias.
Wallace, during the interview on Fox, said he believes Stewart wants to be a political player. The comic pronounced him “dead wrong.”
"I'm not an activist,” Stewart declared. “I am a comedian and my comedy is informed by ideology. I'm not an ideologue."
It marked Stewart’s strongest – if not completely satisfying – attempt to define his role in the comedy-news landscape, amid his blurring of lines between humor and activism over the last couple of years.
We can’t help but note with some amusement that his semi-serious turn in the Fox’ den came as The Onion launched a mock campaign for a Pulitzer Prize – part knock at self-important journalists, part promotion attempt. Both Stewart’s Fox appearance and The Onion’s goofy gimmick peel away to reveal different layers of satire at a time when the fake news game is generating some very real attention.
Just over two years ago, a Time magazine poll, taken after the death of Walter Cronkite, found Stewart to be the most trusted news broadcaster in the country – despite him not being what he or most folks would consider a journalist. A more recent Pew Research Center survey on news consumption found that Stewart and his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert do better with viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic than many news shows.
The perception of "The Daily Show" host as a force transcending comedy has grown in no small part to his own actions – most notably organizing the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in Washington with Colbert last fall and more recently using his TV perch to advocate for the 9/11 responders bill. Colbert has gone even further, in some respects, by testifying before Congress last year in the guise of his Bill O’Reilly-like character and more recently trying to start his own Super PAC.
Stewart’s frequent shots at Fox News – he once called the network a “perpetual revulsion machine” that mashes right-wing opinion and news – generally have been rooted in video clips showing the examples of the network's hypocrisy and delivered with humor and, at times, disbelief bordering on outrage. Some of that outrage flashed Sunday when he called Wallace “insane” after the Fox host cited a “Daily Show” clip juxtaposing a Sarah Palin campaign-style video of her recent bus tour with a similarly edited herpes commercial – and bitterly accused Fox News of general bias.
"The embarrassment is that I'm given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does," said Stewart, whose show has won Emmy and Peabody awards.
The Onion, meanwhile, is showing just the slightest hint of taking itself seriously with the Pulitzer Prize gag – a joke that seems to be at least partially about reaching a new level of recognition, if not necessarily credibility.
The campaign, launched in the name of the fictional Americans for Fairness in Journalism Prizes, includes an online petition and a form letter addressing the Pulitzer folks as "You Ignorant, Negligent Swine."
There's a video, too, decrying the “despicable bigotry” against The Onion. And one of the paper’s latest stories sports a lead paragraph that’s a profundity-filled non-sentence – a Mad Libs-like collection of Pulitzer-friendly buzzwords:
"Calling it devastating, tragic, complex, heartrending, heartwarming, catastrophic, courageous, and shameful, sources confirmed Friday that massive wildfires, geopolitical crises, AIDS, human rights violations, deadly shootings, Africa, tourists taken hostage, ethical and moral issues, child labor, and drug wars."
That’s heavy stuff – maybe we all need to lighten up. Check out The Onion’s video and the full version of the Stewart-Wallace interview below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.