In Praise of Jon Stewart’s Cynicism

Does “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” make its audience of mostly young college kids cynical about politics?

Does Comedy Central’s popular fake newscast, as Washington Post columnist Richard Morin recently fretted, really “develop cynical views about politics and politicians” that could lead his faithful viewers “to just say no to voting”?

Let’s hope so.

For the record, “The Daily Show Effect” — the East Carolina University study that Morin spun his column from — is inconclusive. It also says the show’s 1.5 million nightly viewers actually may react to heavy doses of negativity by getting mad and becoming more politically involved and therefore more likely to vote.

Unfortunately for Republicans, conservatives and the Bush administration, “The Daily Show” — whose Monday-Thursday 11 p.m. mockery is often genuinely funny no matter what your politics — is where most Americans between 18 and 24 get much of their TV “news” and commentary.

"The Daily Show’s" liberal tilt is obvious. President Bush is the nightly Target-in-Chief, and last Tuesday “The Daily Show” spent at least half of its 22 minutes firing away at him.

Stewart mercilessly critiqued/ridiculed President Bush’s 9/11 speech, using the president’s statements as straight lines. Next the president was technologically inserted into that GEICO commercial that features Little Richard doing the celebrity translating. For the finishing skit, Stewart pulled out a straw hat and a desktop-size bale of hay to make fun of President Bush’s cowboy-country persona.

The live audience — the show’s most annoying flaw — hooted, howled and applauded like trained lefties, finding great hilarity in Stewart’s every cynical quip or facial expression.

Stewart has had testy run-ins with Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough. But night in, night out, he is likable, self-deprecating and witty in a way HBO’s cranky comic-pundit Bill Maher is not.

Without losing his joshing/jagging liberal edge, Stewart can be chummy with the most partisan of Bush operatives — as he was Wednesday when former Republican National Committee boss Ed Gillespie came to plug his book “Winning Right.”

Tuesday’s in-studio guest, ex-Colorado senator and presidential wannabe Gary Hart, meanwhile, was treated like a living liberal saint. Hart was plugging “The Courage of Our Convictions,” the new “manifesto” he wrote to guide the Democratic Party back to its core 20th-century values — i.e., high taxes, lots of regulations and big government.

In the course of their make-out session, Stewart ribbed Democrats but mostly helped Hart mock Republicans. At one point, after Stewart kiddingly called Hart a "cynic," Hart called himself "the last American idealist." Stewart was too much in love to laugh.

Stewart’s partisanship is plain. Unless he’s had a transplant, he doesn’t have a single Republican, conservative or libertarian tendon in his progressive body. His argument that the president and Republicans get abused disproportionately — and with such glee — on his show only because they happen to be in power may be his best joke ever.

As for that worry that "The Daily Show’s" negativity and (selective) cynicism threatens to undermine democracy among the young? It’s something only an Inside-the-Beltway columnist could entertain. Our slimy political system — not to mention the hacks, demagogues and phonies of both parties we elect to run it — deserves all the cynicism it gets.


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