How Influential Is Jon Stewart?
There are some notions and memes that are extremely widespread, but exist without a shred of supporting evidence. The greatness of John F. Kennedy’s presidency is one such meme; another is the idea that pork king Robert Byrd represents the “conscience of the Senate.” (Although given the corruption to be found in the Senate, maybe he is). And there is another such impression that is wholly absurd, and dismayingly ubiquitous—that Jon Stewart is a hard-hitting interviewer on television, speaking truth to power and covering stories no one else dare cover.
I’ll accept that Jon Stewart is a very funny person, though I’ve never found him very amusing. (In fairness, I haven’t watched much Stewart. And my sense of humor might differ from that of others). But that’s all he is. He’s not the oracle of the younger generation, and he isn’t Edward R. Murrow. He is only a comedian.
It is often claimed that Stewart controls the news consumption of America’s youth; that most of the under-thirty set get their news chiefly from Stewart’s Daily Show. Many do, and the Daily Show’s audience consists primarily of young people, but unless there are only about 1.6 million young people, the Daily Show only reaches a tiny proportion of them. Jon Stewart has done an impressive job of growing his audience (he’s tripled it since taking over in 1999), but it’s still small—Stewart’s reach is about as large as that of Greta Van Susteren’s.
But the size of one’s audience doesn’t always correspond to the amount of influence one has—after all, William Buckley didn’t reach many people directly through Firing Line and National Review, but he wielded a great deal of influence just the same. Is this the case with Stewart?
One of Stewart’s first triumphs was his feud with the CNN show Crossfire, and with Crossfire host Tucker Carlson. Stewart appeared on the show to promote his latest book—instead, he took the opportunity to criticize the show, saying that it reduced the news to talking points and engaged in “partisan hackery.” Three months later, Crossfire was cancelled.
Impressive, until you consider the circumstances surrounding the cancellation. Crossfire had just been reduced from an hour to a half hour, and moved from primetime to an afternoon slot. The show only averaged about 600,000 viewers an episode, which is a low figure for a channel like CNN. And if Stewart hoped to end cable news’ “partisan hackery,” he failed—cable news is as acrimonious as ever.
Stewart’s Crossfire feud may have been entertaining, and did show that Jon Stewart was a force to be reckoned with. But Stewart merely dealt a death blow to a dying show—he hardly forced Crossfire into cancellation by himself.
Stewart’s latest exploit was his feud with Jim Cramer, in the course of which he pointed out that Cramer’s stock predictions have frequently been wrong and accussed Cramer of being remiss in not warning of the stock collapse. I was a bit surprised that Stewart felt the need to point out the first part of his accusation—I had assumed that most people had long ago realized that listening to Jim Cramer was not a guaranteed path to wealth. And the idea that Cramer could have done anything to warn of or prevent the stock market collapse is just silly—Cramer gave stock tips, not detailed economic analysis’.
So Stewart embarrassed Cramer a bit by playing clips of some Cramer’s less impressive moments. But oddly, the rest of media jumped on this story like it was the modern version of the Frost/Nixon interviews. This was ridiculous for two reasons.
The first was that while Jim Cramer is well known, he’s not very influential—more people probably saw his cameo in Iron Man than watch his show in a year. Even if Cramer had seen the collapse coming, he couldn’t have done anything to slow it—he just doesn’t have the clout.
And the second reason, as noted above, is that even if Jim Cramer did have the influence to have done something about the financial crisis, he is the last person one would expect to play Jeremiah. Cramer’s show exists only because of Cramer’s ridiculous antics—were it not for them, Jim Cramer would be unknown. Stewart seems to have Jim Cramer confused with Alan Greenspan.
Jon Stewart is talented, and is not without influence. But his influence is very much exaggerated—he is not the conscience of the media, nor is he the voice of America’s youth. He is a comedian—and that’s all he wants to be.