- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Don’t get me wrong. I think Jon Stewart’s hilarious. I happen also to think that he’s a sanctimonious weasel who tries to have it both ways: comedian most of the time, serious-minded commentator when it suits him. It was irritating enough to hear the chorus of hosannas last October when Mr. Stewart kicked the ratings-challenged CNN staple “Crossfire” while it was down. (I was a fan in the days when Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan were hosts and can’t remember when I stopped watching.)

Mr. Stewart accused “Crossfire” of “hurting America,” whatever that means.

Entertainment Weekly named him 2004’s entertainer of the year, celebrating, in particular, his showdown with “Crossfire” co-host Tucker Carlson. Vanity Fair gave him and his cohorts a lavish two-page, year-end photo spread.

And everyone’s been told at least twice that Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which Mr. Stewart has hosted to great acclaim since 1999, is more popular among the nation’s youth than the nightly news and serious print journalism.

This, evidently, does not “hurt America.”

It got worse in the new year.

The big cheese in charge of CNN’s U.S. programming apparently took Mr. Stewart’s criticism to heart, and said so publicly.

“I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp,” Jonathan Klein mused to Associated Press, explaining his decision earlier this month to drastically scale back “Crossfire” and take a pass on Mr. Carlson’s contract.

“I doubt that when the president sits down with his advisers they scream at him to bring him up to date on all of the issues,” he said. “I don’t know why we don’t treat the audience with the same respect.”

The Jon Stewart what? Camp?

Mr. Klein, who — classy guy — knifes employees in the front, must not have listened to the rest of Mr. Stewart’s rant. When challenged for softballing Sen. John Kerry in a “Daily Show” interview, Mr. Stewart specifically denied having a “camp.”

Not that he needs me to fight his battles — he’ll land softly on another cable outlet — but Mr. Carlson was right: Jon Stewart is a good comedian, but a boring lecturer.

In his sparring match with Mr. Carlson and co-host Paul Begala, Mr. Stewart called for more “civilized discourse” on shows about politics. Here’s the thrust of his argument, from what I can gather between the lines of his sarcastic commentary on the program: The show, by its polarizing nature, creates a vacuum at the center of important issues; for the sake of “theater,” it pushes arguments to the margins rather than toward consensus. And it favors partisan-driven talking points over dispassionate debate.

“You are partisan — what do you call it? — hacks,” Mr. Stewart chided.

The argument is not without merit, but the problem he diagnosed, theatrical partisanship, lies deeper than 24-hour cable. The same extremism can be found on the current-events shelf at Barnes & Noble.

My own view is that it has more to do with the cracking of the old liberal establishment; achieving consensus was easier when the right was an eccentric counterculture that could be safely ignored.

After making his argument on “Crossfire,” Mr. Stewart then conveniently declared himself off-limits from counterargument on the grounds that he’s “only” a comedian.

Mr. Stewart’s attitude that he’s a “mere” entertainer means one of two things: Either he has naively inflated the standards of political discourse or he has seriously underestimated the power of irony.

The “I’m just a comedian” came in a few variations on “Crossfire,” all of them packed with zing:

“I didn’t realize that … the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity … . If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to … If your idea of confronting me is that I don’t ask hard-hitting-enough news questions, we’re in bad shape, fellas.”

Sorry, Jonny, but you’re not Jay Leno, who really is “just a comedian.”

Mere comedians do not show up on “Crossfire” to implore its hosts to “stop, stop, stop hurting America.”

And they certainly do not appear regularly on the CBS Evening News. (Talking to reporters on Tuesday, Leslie Moonves, co-chief executive of Viacom, parent of both CBS and Comedy Central, pointedly refused to rule out a role for Mr. Stewart on the brodcast in the post-Dan Rather era.)

Mr. Stewart is a political satirist — a very good one at that, as his and fellow “Daily Show” writers’ best-selling mock textbook “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” amply shows. Moreover, he’s a satirist with an obvious leftward bent.

His hiding behind the skirt of comedy is like Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain — incisive critics of church and state — saying they only meant to tickle funny bones, not change minds.

Mr. Stewart put it best himself with his comeback to Mr. Carlson’s taunt, “I thought you were going to be funny — come on, be funny.”

“No. No, I’m not going to be your monkey,” Mr. Stewart retorted.

Bully for him. It was “Crossfire,” after all, not Comedy Central. But think about it: If Jon Stewart really is “just a comedian,” nothing more, then that’s exactly what he is — a monkey.

And a weasel.

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