On September 20, 2001, Jon Stewart asked his Daily Show audience an unusual question: Are you okay? “We pray that you are,” he said, “and that your family is.”
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, late night had gone dark as comedians looked to David Letterman—then the genres elder statesman—to speak first. On Monday, September 17, the Late Show host did, delivering a vulnerable but composed address. Days later, Stewart gave us something else—a raw monologue in which he nervously tapped his pen against his desk, slapped his hand down and looked away from cameras in search of an emotional reprieve. Unlike Letterman, he openly wept. But a heartbroken Stewart also took solace in the beauty of watching first responders, police, and firefighters leading a heroic recovery effort—as well as the new view from his apartment: “The Statue of Liberty,” he said through tears. “The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You cant beat that.”
One can draw a clear line between that tearful address and the more furious one Stewart delivered before Congress this week, when he demanded to know why it was taking so long to pass a bill that will continue funding to cover health care for the first responders who risked their lives on September 11. His testimony was impassioned, articulate, and practically destined to go viral, like a milestone segment from an old Daily Show episode. As he spoke, Stewart fiddled with his pen and even threw it at one point. He slapped his hand against the table. He wept. “Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time,” he said. “Its the one thing theyre running out of. This hearing should be flipped. These men and women should be up on that stage, and Congress should be down here answering their questions as to why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long.”
At a time when there is no shortage of things to be mad about, Stewart managed to make this issue—this one issue—feel like the only battleground that mattered. And his insistent emotional investment has already moved the needle, nine years after Stewarts Daily Show first brought national attention to the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation.
Since Stewart left The Daily Show, in 2015, the media landscape has been flooded with Stewart acolytes—comedian-activist hybrids, most of whom got their start as Daily Show correspondents, who specialize in emphatic monologues designed as much to effect change as they are to evoke laughs. Given that, why does Stewarts effort this week feel so singular? And more importantly, could Stewart actually succeed in getting these first responders covered for good?
Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University who has written multiple books about the relationship between politics and media, sees several potential answers. First, theres the issue itself: helping first responders deal with grave illness is about as nonpartisan as a cause can get. Stewart has also been off the airwaves for nearly four years now—which makes his return to the spotlight all the more exciting, especially to fans who have likely grown increasingly frustrated with the state of things under the Trump administration. Should the bill pass, Dagnes said, well have Stewart to thank, insofar as hes made this a national issue once again—though some supporters of the bill wont exactly see Stewart as the draw. “I mean, does a farmer in the middle of Oklahoma really care about Jon Stewart?” Dagnes reasoned. “No. Does he care about firefighters? Yes….And does he care about firefighters who were sick, running into a building on September 11th? You betcha. I mean, this is the material that Toby Keith wrote his zillion songs about.”
Stewart also has a long emotional history with this matter, contributing to his impact. At the time Stewart first began advocating for the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, Republicans seemed to be squashing the bill—but three days after Stewart excoriated the measures opponents and sat down with a group of angry first responders for an on-air panel, the bill wound up passing. In 2015, Stewart traveled to D.C. alongside a group of first responders to lobby for continued funding, blasting Congress for dragging their feet. And this year, he returned. Less than 24 hours after Stewarts latest angry speech to senators went viral, the bill passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously.
“Since Stewart was clearly so rightfully angry about this, and has been forever, it felt authentic,” Dagnes said. “He wasn't doing this because he just hates President Trump.” (As Dagnes noted, a common complaint she hears from conservatives during her book tours is that liberal talk-show hosts are simply looking for excuses to bash the president.)
Stewart may no longer helm The Daily Show, but his influence on the late-night genre has been both indelible and undeniable. Just look at all the series hosted by his former correspondents: John Olivers Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bees Full Frontal, Hasan Minhajs Patriot Act. Stephen Colberts Late Show, which follows stricter rules as a broadcast franchise, also bears Stewarts stamp—literally, in this case because Stewart is an executive producer of that show. Even Jimmy Kimmel, who could be described as more of a Letterman disciple than a student of Stewart, has gotten decisively political, as seen when he faced off against Republicans on health care. But despite moments like that—and Olivers successful crashing of the FCC website after raising an unlikely sense of passion and urgency around net neutrality—its hard to imagine any other hosts trip to D.C. landing with as much impact as Stewarts has.
Still, as Dagnes points out, “Congress is a slow-moving beast, and thats under the best of circumstances. And right now, were not under the best of circumstances, so its even more slow going. But this might be one of the things that theyre able to accomplish, if for no other reason than it really…this should be a no-brainer.”
So, why has it been so hard to secure stable funding for this bill? According to political scientist and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein, for all the hoopla surrounding Stewarts latest viral evisceration, its still hard to say. “This one, in some ways, is a big puzzle, because it oughta be a no-brainer,” he said. “In decades past, it would have been taken care of very quickly…I think its a combination of inertia, of the just tribal difficulty of getting much done in Congress, and I also think that we have a problem where Republicans look at this and say, Its New York. Thats not our country.” (Stewart decried that very point in his speech Tuesday when he said, “Al Qaeda didnt shout Death to Tribeca! They attacked America,” Stewart said. “These men and women, and their response to it, is what brought our country back.”)
Another hurdle in the race to get traction on any issue is the daily deluge of Trump stories, which clog the news cycle and make it hard for Americans to retain sustained focus on just about any one topic—a factor that might explain why Stewarts successors in the late-night field rarely manage to spur action like Stewart has. “You can grab attention and make people think for a minute, and you can highlight some of the idiocies, or outrages, that are there,” Ornstein said. “But not much moves the needles these days.”
Oddly enough, however, that flood of stories might be whats helped set Stewart over the top this week—not because of how hes covereRead More – Source