Monday, December 27, 2010

Stepping Outside of the Box

The New York Times wonders…

Did the bill pledging federal funds for the health care of 9/11 responders become law in the waning hours of the 111th Congress only because a comedian took it up as a personal cause?

And does that make that comedian, Jon Stewart — despite all his protestations that what he does has nothing to do with journalism — the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow?

It’s interesting that since Mr. Stewart is not alone in being a media personality with an agenda — vide Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh — it was Mr. Stewart who was able to at least make some headway with getting the 9/11 First Responders bill passed, as opposed to the others who carried on against the other bills that got passed such as healthcare, the stimulus, Wall Street reform, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and a lot of other causes.

Mr. Stewart would be the last person to compare himself to the man who helped bring an end to the reign of Joseph McCarthy. Comedians and journalists have roles in our society and they’re not supposed to step over the line. Comics can mock us, but they can’t take up a cause. Journalists can report, but they must be objective. Granted, Mr. Murrow had a lot more to lose than Mr. Stewart; supporting the 9/11 bill and shaming the people who were holding it up was not a controversial stand as opposed to coming out against a demagogue at the height of his power in 1954. But the one thing both men have in common is that they took up a cause on behalf of the weak against the powerful. That is essentially the role of both comedy and investigative journalism: to make us aware of the injustices and exploitations of the powerful.

Edward R. Murrow
once said that television can illuminate and educate, but unless the people watching it are willing to learn from what they see, it is merely “wires and lights in a box.” And in his own way, Jon Stewart is saying the same thing.