Jon Stewart is often, only half-jokingly, referred to as the most trusted anchorman today. Despite primarily being a comedian, he often does provide more information on important issues than the mainstream broadcast and cable media (a low bar to surpass). This includes information obtained from his interviews, especially with those who hold opposing viewpoints. New York Magazine has an article on Why Neoconservative Pundits Love Jon Stewart, initially quoting “Cliff May, a national-security hawk and former spokesman for the Republican Party.”
“There is genuine intellectual curiosity,” May told New York. “He’s a staunch liberal, but he’s a thoughtful liberal, and I respect that.” May isn’t the only conservative gushing about Stewart. While the movement professes a disdain for the “liberal media elite,” it has made an exception for the true-blue 46-year-old comedian. “He always gives you a chance to answer, which some people don’t do,” says John Bolton, President Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and a Fox News contributor, who went on the show last month. “He’s got his perspective, but he’s been fair.” Says Bolton: “In general, a lot of the media, especially on the left, has lost interest in debate and analysis. It has been much more ad hominem. Stewart fundamentally wants to talk about the issues. That’s what I want to do.”
What’s more, Stewart seems to like hosting conservatives (Comedy Central did not reply to requests for comment). In recent weeks, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Kristol have stopped by. Since the beginning of the Obama administration, Stewart has interviewed more conservative pundits than liberal ones. (Remember when fans fretted he’d have trouble finding ways to be funny under the new president?) It may be because it’s simply easier to tangle with an ideological adversary than to needle a compatriot. A clash of ideas is always more entertaining than an echo chamber. And, for a liberal wit like Stewart, it’s easier to stake out a clear position when facing off against a direct opponent. When he’s interviewing a liberal politician or pundit, he comes from a weaker position. His offensive instincts are blurred — notwithstanding his on-air indictment of Jim Cramer — and occasionally he fawns…
Conservatives like Stewart because he’s providing them a platform to reach an audience that usually tunes them out. And they often find that Stewart takes them more seriously than right-wing political hosts, who are often just using them to validate their broad positions, do. Stewart will poke fun, but he offers a good-faith debate on powder kegs — torture, abortion, nuclear weapons, health care — that explode on other networks. “Shepard Smith did the same discussion [on torture],” says May. “He kept yelling me at me: ‘This is where I get off the bus! Not in my name!’ He wasn’t arguing with me. It was just assertions and anger. That’s not what Jon deals in.”
I’m sure that to a considerable degree this is because of the differences between Jon Stewart and people like Bill O’Reily and Rush Limbaugh. More importantly, I think it is due to the differences between liberal and conservative audiences. The modern conservative movement has turned into a top-down movement where conservatives are more interested in having their biases reinforced. Liberals (as well as those conservatives who reject the conservative movement) are more interested in obtaining factual information.
This difference can be seen the most dramatically with radio. Conservative talk radio is thriving while comparatively few liberals listen to Air America. In contrast liberals tend to prefer the far more objective and informative NPR as opposed to more ideologically biased shows. On television MSNBC has only recently had some modest success with shows such as Keith Olbermann. One reason is that liberals have little choice on television. If we had a real cable news channel, as opposed to twenty-four coverage of headlines and often just one story of the day, I suspect that many liberals would choose that over the current MSNBC shows. Of course even these shows are generally far less shrill than their Fox counterparts, except when in direct battle with them. In interviewing conservatives to have a true exchange of ideas, Stewart is providing what a liberal audience wants.