Stewart: Not Yet Edward Murrow

Like any patriotic American, I celebrated the long overdue passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, or 9/11 first responders health care bill for short, last Wednesday. The bill “extend(s) and improve(s) protections and services to individuals directly impacted by the terrorist attack in New York City on September 11, 2001,” and, prior to its passage, had been heralded by Democratsand Tea Partiers alike.
Since the bill was sent to the White House, attention has focused on the meteoric shift of the Senate Republicans from downright filibustering the legislation starting in September and continuing through mid-December, to their sudden backing-down immediately before the Congressional recess. Leading Senate proponents of the bill seemed to be just as stunned by the unanticipated swing with Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) calling it a “Christmas miracle.”
It is impossible to know exactly what caused the crucial Republican votes to shift in favor of this legislation, but much ado has recently been made of comedian Jon Stewart’s December 17 episode of the “Daily Show” which he devoted to advocating for the bill. In an article yesterday, New York Times journalists Bill Carter and Brian Stelter loftily compared Stewart to the broadcast journalist of the 1940s-50s, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow was best known for turning “public opinion against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy” and his rabid anti-communist pursuits through critical analysis of the Red Scare on his CBS series See It Now.
I certainly think Stewart’s advocacy was invaluable in the legislation’s success and his show clearly brought to light the Republicans’ blocking of the bill, thus causing more letters and phone calls sent to those disobedient senators. I also concede that Stewart went about swaying public opinion in a relatively Murrow-esque way, although his diversion from jokes and satire to thoughtfulness and straight faces when talking about the bill wasn’t difficult to miss.
However, I reject the premise that Stewart is a “modern-day” version of Edward Murrow. I’d argue that he is of an entirely different, and much more new-age breed. Although I disagree with his opinion on where the funding for health care for 9/11 first responders should come, Doug Mataconis eloquently contends in his recent piece that Stewart’s analysis of the bill was of a less journalistic and more activist nature, and I couldn’t agree more. Jon Stewart’s contributions were just as invaluable as Edward Murrow’s, but they were of a different sort. When Stewart, who has made past political contributions to New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, focused his show’s attention on a specific issue, he assumed the activist role played by such commentators as Keith Olbermann. There is nothing wrong with this role, and I actually welcome such commentary, but to equate it with Edward Murrow’s investigative reporting of the 1950s is out of line. Not only was Murrow’s show focused around unbiased news analysis rather than satire, but the reporting Murrow did on McCarthy was much more akin to a modern-day 60 Minutesinvestigation than Stewart’s activist piece.
Don’t get me wrong: I can’t thank Jon Stewart enough for showing such passion for an issue of great significance. But to place him in the same ranks as Edward Murrow is to misunderstand, and confuse the difference between, activism and journalism.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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