Posted by: mbtrotter | January 3, 2011

The 9/11 health bill pushes Jon Stewart into rare company.


President Barack Obama signed the Zadroga Act — colloquially, the 9/11 health bill — into law from Kailua, Hawaii, today.

Just weeks ago, the bill seemed destined to die in the Senate because of a Republican filibuster, but in what some are calling a “Christmas miracle,” senators passed it Dec. 22.

Why the sudden change of heart? The New York Times’ blog The Caucus pointed to criticism “not just from Democrats, but also from traditional Republican allies, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, and conservative news outlets like Fox News.”

Shepard Smith was one of those who railed against the Senate for trying to vote down the bill. “These people ran to ground zero to save people’s lives and we’re not going to even give them medicine for the illnesses that they got down there? It’s disgusting, it’s a national disgrace, it’s a shame, and everybody who voted against it should have to stand up and account for himself or herself. Is anybody going to hold them accountable?”

But why did Smith suddenly jump into the fray when there had been no reporting on the bill for more than two months? This skewering of politicians and American media companies by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show Dec. 16.

Stewart was “flat-on, absolutely right,” Smith said. And as time goes on, credit for getting the bill passed is increasingly falling on the comedian.

NPR reported a tweet of thanks from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that mentioned Stewart — as did an official statement. An analysis from the New York Times drew comparisons to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

And while there have been naysayers (perhaps CNN is a bit jaded from past Stewart criticisms) they have been outnumbered by those who believe in Stewart’s political and journalistic influence.

Stewart, the man who famously refuses to call himself a journalist, may be the best journalist Americans have.

Three and a half years ago, American Journalism Review highlighted what mainstream media can learn from him. And while questions about the fairness and accuracy of The Daily Show may persist, emerging ideas among journalists and Stewart’s methods are quietly pushing those questions into the background.

From the AJR article:

“Nowhere is the comedy show balanced,” says [Venise Wagner, chair of San Francisco State’s journalism department] “but it allows them more balance in showing what is really going on.”

As journalists, by contrast, “We’ve presented a balanced picture to the public. But is it accurate? Is it authentic?” She cites coverage of the global warming debate, which, until recently, often was presented as an equal argument between scientists who said global warming was occurring and scientists who denied it. “That reality was not authentic. There were very few scientists who refuted the body of evidence” supporting global warming, Wagner says, yet the coverage did not always reflect that.

After his tirade against American media outlets, Stewart interviewed four 9/11 first responders who are having health problems after working at ground zero.

But in a greater show of balance than many cable news channels ever give, Stewart also pressed guest Mike Huckabee for the Republican/media side.

And in pulling no punches while bringing the truth surrounding the Zadroga Act to the forefront of the national conversation, Stewart indeed performed the kind of advocacy journalism that inspired the comparisons to Murrow and Cronkite.

To counter McCarthyism, Murrow used the March 9, 1954 episode of See It Now to show Americans the danger Sen. Joseph McCarthy posed to civil liberties. His remarks were intended to move people to action.

[T]he line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. … We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. … (W)e are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent.

By the end of the year, McCarthy had been censured, undoubtedly because of Murrow’s broadcast.

Then there is Cronkite’s commentary on the Vietnam War; it was a bold challenge to American leadership during wartime and a rare indicator of public opinion.

Besides the humor, what is different about Stewart’s focus on the 9/11 health bill?

If that’s all that separates Stewart’s brand of advocacy journalism from Murrow’s and Cronkite’s, then, as reluctant as Stewart is to assume the mantle of journalist, he has shown himself to be the best one of his generation.

All video in this post is the copyrighted material of Comedy Central and was purchased by the author for not-for-profit use.

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