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Obama and Stewart: What Fake News Can Do

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“I don’t want to lump you in with a lot of other pundits,” President Barack Obama told Jon Stewart in his interview on last night’s Daily Show. In saying that, Obama brought up a question that Stewart’s rising prominence, and this weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity, have underscored: should we lump in Stewart with other pundits? Is he a social commentator or an entertainer? Is he a newsman or a fake newsman? Is he funny or serious?

It’s a simplistic question, of course, one that misunderstands both the nature of public life today (journalism and politics are at least half performance) and of satire (which is comedy informed by serious matters). And Stewart’s interview with Obama—not a conventional, somber sitdown, but often very substantive anyway—was a sort of answer to it.

Stewart wasted little time bringing Obama on, dispensing with his monologue, running over into Stephen Colbert’s timeslot on Comedy Central and going through a few opening niceties (presenting POTUS with a souvenir mug) before launching into questions on such laugh-riot topics as healthcare and financial reform. And while it wasn’t a textbook journalistic interrogation, it also demonstrated some things a late-night program like The Daily Show can do that the “real” news can’t.

The Daily Show audience was an indisputably friendly one for Obama, and in more than an applauding-to-be-polite kind of way. (When Obama said the set reminded him of his 2008 convention, he could have been talking about more than the Roman columns.) This as not just a crowd that clapped at the mention of the administration’s children’s health insurance program; this was a crowd that clapped at the names of Democratic representatives Tom Perriello and Betsy Markey.

But if the visit was obviously a way for Obama to reach out to his base a few days before midterms, he had to do so by way of addressing the ways that he’s let his base down. Stewart, let’s have no illusions, is not ideologically neutral, and when he pressed the President on policy—like his “timid” approach to healthcare reform—he leaned from the left. (Among Obama’s responses were that critics shouldn’t focus on “the 10% we didn’t get” as opposed to the other 90%.)  These are criticisms Obama has heard and addressed before, to be sure, but not generally in the format of a national TV interview.

In a typical network-news interview with the President, “getting tough” with him is defined as presenting him with the criticisms of his opposition. Obama is a Democrat, so the questioning of him is usually framed in terms of the Republican critique. And it’s fine and appropriate that reporters should try to get the President to answer his opponents’ charges—but in this binary system, it means that there’s a critique of the President that goes mostly unaddressed. Sometimes that critique is from the left (healthcare reform or the stimulus were too weak), sometimes it’s not ideological at all (the administration didn’t act boldly enough to remake a corrupt system).

Stewart’s interview, like The Daily Show itself, wasn’t a replacement for the work of the rest of the news media but a supplement to it. A comedian has certain advantages straight reporters don’t. He can call the President “Dude.” When Obama referred to Larry Summers as having done a “heckuva job,” directly recalling George W. Bush’s unfortunate praise of his FEMA head after Katrina, Stewart pounced, “Dude, you don’t want to use that phrase.” (Obama tried to recover with, “Pun intended.” Yeah, I don’t think so, and it wasn’t actually a pun.) And a comedian can laugh when Obama says, “Yes We Can, but…” a moment that probably encapsulated better than any gotcha question or editorial the disparity between the campaign promise and the administrative reality of the Presidency.

That said, just because Stewart and his staff are aces at pinpointing the foibles of the rest of the media doesn’t mean Stewart is ready to take over their job. He at times seemed overawed, and—unlike with past guests, with whom his interview skills have sharpened over time—had trouble getting words in for stretches. (“It’s just so hard not to talk,” Stewart mock-giggled. At least I think it was mock.)

But he also kept his questions off the horserace and process queries—except for a question about Democrats running against their party’s record—that are so typical of politics coverage. (How do you think your party will do in the midterms? Will you hold the Senate? What’s your plan for repositioning your message after election day?) Instead, he asked about the sense—again, from a liberal perspective, but one held across the ideological spectrum—that Obama, having campaigned on basic structural change, simply “papered over” a basically corrupt system.

There’s plenty of love for Stewart among journalists—Brian Williams, for instance, praises him to the skies—but also, sometimes, grousing that Stewart takes cheap shots at the work reporters do, while trying to have it both ways himself. He’s sanctimonious when he wants to be, goes the criticism, and then retreats behind the defense that he’s just a comedian.

There’s something to that, but the criticisms of Stewart, particularly of interviews like this one, also try to have it both ways: on the one hand, he’s not hard-hitting enough in them; on the other, he’s not funny enough in them. In the end, The Daily Show is probably most valuable when it’s critiquing the straight media, not imitating them. But taken for what it was—a conversation more than an interrogation—Stewart showed that he’s better at asking questions than most reporters are at being funny.

[Update: For a different time.com take on the interview, see Michael Scherer’s Swampland post, and especially his back-and-forth with responders in the comments. I disagree that Stewart’s irony and his earnestness are two different things, that we need to untangle where “one ends and the other begins”—I think that, in his satire, one works in service of the other—but Michael has a pretty thoughtful analysis of how Stewart’s comedy works.]

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