As Walter Cronkite passed on to that great newsroom in the sky, joining the other "most trusted" newscaster - Edward R. Murrow, who recruited Cronkite to CBS - Time magazine released a poll naming a surprising new most trusted newscaster: Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
In a New York Times op-ed, Frank Rich opined that Stewart is not properly positioned to "speak truth to power." He wrote, "This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart." But Rich's belief was grounded in what used to be, not what newscasting has become.
See: David Gregory of NBC, so thirsty for a Mark Sanford "get" that he told the skirt-chasing governor, "Meet the Press allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to."
See: CNN's Lou Dobbs pandering to "birther" conspiracy theorists, and his boss, network president Lou Klein, calling the story "legitimate."
See: Fox News- um, just see Fox News.
That Stewart's act is played for laughs doesn't mean it cannot be revealing. Satire done well exposes the truth beneath the pomposity.
More than once, Stewart has defined The Daily Show as "fake news." That honesty in itself places him leaps and bounds ahead of such so-called serious-news hawkers as Bill O'Reilly, who sees himself as a truth-teller to the "folks." While Stewart spins the news for laughs, O'Reilly spins it for partiality. Stewart's spin reveals the emperor's nakedness; O'Reilly's dresses him the way he wants you to see him.
At his best, Stewart gets his guests to tell it like it is, even when they don't realize it. Recently, Stewart debated health insurance with Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor Bill Kristol. Serious-news pundit and conservative maven Kristol voiced his deep distrust of any government-run health plan. Comedian Stewart inquired as to the quality of the military health plan, which Kristol believed to be splendid and well-deserved. With a "gotcha" twinkle in his eye and perfect timing, Stewart pointed out that the military plan is in fact government-run. The next two minutes saw a mumbling Kristol clumsily trying to crawl out of the hole he had just dug.
Truth to power? How about getting truth from power? Jon got laughs, Bill his comeuppance, and the audience the truth: Not only can a government-run health plan work, but Kristol admitted that one already does.
Stewart's game is to bring laughter to the news, which often doesn't necessitate adding to or changing the words and deeds of the newsmakers themselves. Take Sarah Palin - please. And Vice President Biden proves that verbatim humor isn't partisan.
As with solid reporting, satire delivers a pungent warning to the powerful. And in real news or fake, trust comes partly from respect for the audience and its intelligence.
News as entertainment is a post-Cronkite development, still in its babbling, learning-to-walk stage. But satire as a revealer of truth is as old as Pan. Is it any wonder that the modern satirist has gained more of the audience's trust? Just because he does it with humor doesn't make the result any less substantial.
Cronkite ended his newscast with "And that's the way it is." At the end of every Daily Show, Stewart introduces "your moment of Zen," a piece of actual footage that often features some newsmaker making a fool of himself, sans the necessity of any further comment by Stewart or anyone else. In both cases, we have been trusted with a truth that we are left to judge ourselves.