Stewart’s ‘Crossfire’ Hurricane

What the retiring comic did to political debate

Jon Stewart was already famous when he appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004 to berate the hosts for “hurting America” with their partisan rhetoric.

The appearance helped make Stewart more than just a comic. He suddenly became a truth-teller, someone who could rise above the ideological divide and point out problems others couldn’t see.

That’s precisely the image being shared via media outlets this week as Comedy Central tees up his final episode hosting “The Daily Show.” Too bad the liberal comic would soon symbolize the problem he so aggressively finger pointed at on that now-famous episode.

Stewart’s final appearance, airing at 11 p.m. Eastern Thursday, caps a remarkable run that ultimately failed to deliver on the promise Stewart implied back in 2004.

Yes, those right-left shout fests could alienate audiences. They still do. So how was Stewart’s show any different? It wasn’t, except for two obvious features. Stewart rarely featured right-leaning commentary, and he routinely used bleeped language and cartoonish stereotypes to smite those who dared to disagree with him.

Take his assaults on Fox News, a near constant barrage against the sole news network that unabashedly leans to the right. Stewart routinely cherry-picked clips to make the channel look foolish and blasted the show’s stars without considering their perspectives. How many news sites used the words, “Destroy” and “Fox News” in their headlines after sharing one of Stewart’s broadsides?

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Did that help the national debate on the subject du jour? How was that any different than two “Crossfire” hosts verbally slugging it out without ever really listening to one another?

One could argue Stewart’s show is just that, a show that has little to no bearing on current events or the national mood. The “Daily Show” ratings were never as strong as cable smashes like “Duck Dynasty” or “The Walking Dead.” The comic himself would talk down his own influence, insisting he was just a funnyman trying to poke fun where it needed to be poked.

Would the commander in chief burn so many calories over a simple comedy show?

That’s wrong on a number of counts. His “Daily Show” addressed real issues in a timely manner, using actual news clips to set a comic agenda.

A 2007 study showed many Americans regarded Stewart as a bona fide news anchor along with actual anchors on the broadcast networks. A 2004 Pew Research Center poll found 21 percent of people in the 18-29 age group got some of their presidential campaign news from “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” another comic institution. And media reporters eagerly played up Stewart’s power. Some reporters went so far as to call him the Edward R. Murrow of our age, as The New York Times did in 2010.

And we recently learned the Obama administration routinely reached out to the show’s writing team, going so far as to invite Stewart himself to the White House on two occasions. Would the commander in chief burn so many calories over a simple comedy show? When Fox News addressed the visits recently Stewart responded in typical Stewart fashion — “Adios, mother[another expletive],” he told the cable network.

So let’s watch Stewart’s final episode Thursday and see how he hits the news cycle one last time. He might wrap his tenure on a positive, nonpartisan note. It won’t matter. The cultural damage has been done, according to the version of Stewart who spoke up back in 2004.

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