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Jon Stewart: America's Ruling King Of Fake News

Dec 28, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2010. This interview was originally broadcast on October 4, 2010.

On Oct. 30, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted dueling rallies on the National Mall. Called "The Rally to Restore Sanity" and the "March to Keep Fear Alive," respectively, the two rallies closely mimicked Glenn Beck's recent "Restoring Honor Rally," also held in Washington, D.C.

Stewart sat down with Terry Gross on Sept. 29 in front of a live audience at New York City's 92nd Street Y to discuss his time on The Daily Show, his role in the media, and the rally — which was billed as "Woodstock, but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement."

"Like everything that we do, the march is merely a construct," he says. "It's merely a format, in the way the book is a format, a show is a format ... to be filled with the type of material that Stephen and I do and the point of view [that we have]. People have said, 'It's a rally to counter Glenn Beck.' It's not. What it is was, we saw that and thought, 'What a beautiful outline. What a beautiful structure to fill with what we want to express in live form, festival form."

For the past 11 years, Stewart has been expressing his opinions nightly on The Daily Show, which consistently ranks among the top programs viewed by the 18-34 age demographic. His quick wit and biting satire have taken the once-obscure fake-news show and made it an influential voice in American humor and politics.

To make the bits that go into the nightly show, Stewart says, the writers and producers follow a daily schedule that includes a lot of research, writing and rewriting.

"You'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is and how the infrastructure of the show is mechanized," he says. "People say, The Daily Show, you guys just sit around and make jokes,' but to weed through all of this material ... and decide what to do, we have a very strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, it gives us the freedom to improvise."

Each day at 9 a.m., Stewart sits with his writers and producers. They go over all of the previous day's top news stories and how they've been covered by the 24-hour news channels and other news programs.

"The 9 o'clock is to kind of rehash the analysis we were going over the night before, to see if the premises and hypotheses we came up with the night before have come to pass, and what's the video evidence," Stewart says. "And we take that and we start to knit it together for writing assignments. And those writing assignments are usually coming back in at 11:30, at which point we begin to read them. Then we go over the notes of how we're going to attack it. The day basically goes as sort of a little dance between writing and rewriting and including all of the other elements — graphics and other things."

The final hours before the 6 p.m. live taping are spent rewriting chunks of the script that didn't work during the dress rehearsal, or adding material that the staff has found between writing sessions. Sometimes, Stewart says, entire elements are completely reworked during the show's rewrite — and then performed for the first time in front of the studio audience.

But even though The Daily Show often comes up with facts and stories missed by other news sources, Stewart says, it would be wrong to describe what he does as "journalism."

"We don't do anything but make the connections," he says. "We're just going off our own instinct of, 'What are the connections to this that make sense?' And this really is true: We don't fact-check [and] look at context because of any journalistic criteria that has to be met; we do that because jokes don't work when they're lies. We fact-check so when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a gut level — not because we have a journalistic integrity, [but because] hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to violate."

Stewart  is the co-author of America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democratic Inaction and Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race. He also hosted the 78th and 80th Academy Awards and has received two Peabody Awards for his work on The Daily Show's election coverage in 2000 and 2004.


Interview Highlights

On similarities between himself and Glenn Beck

"He's a reaction to what he feels like is the news, and so are we. We actually share quite a bit in common in terms of, not point of view necessarily, but reason for being. We're both in some ways an op-ed. We consider ourselves editorial cartoonists in some respect. Not him, but the show. Op-ed cartoonists, or the Messiah. We're both different. I very much wanted to avoid the idea that [the march] would be a reaction to him. 'Cause I don't think that'd be fair to him and it's not meant to ridicule activism or the Tea Party movement or religious people."

On deconstructing Beck

"The beautiful thing about what he does is, it's very difficult to argue with his facts. It's the conclusions [that are problematic]. ... It's that slippery slope. ... So what you do is, you just grab together facts and put them together and then do a grab bag of conclusions. Everything is discovered as evidence of secret plots, of secret things that could be occurring."

On Christine O'Donnell

"The last thing that I would suggest is that her witchcraft or masturbation stance should be what we should be thinking about or focusing on, and I think that's an enormous mistake that the Democrats will make. We like to sit around the office and we have a little game called 'How will the Democrats blow it?' And that's the way they'll do it. They'll think somehow that that will resonate with voters, that 20 years ago Christine O'Donnell on MTV said 'Masturbation is a sin.' And they'll play it, and they'll ridicule it, and the voters will be like, 'Yeah, I don't have a job.' That's how they'll blow it."

On politicians and the media

"I think it made me less political and more emotional. The [more] you spend time with the political [world] and media, the less political you become and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption. I don't consider it political, because 'political' I always sort of note as a partisan endeavor. But I have become increasingly unnerved by the depth of corruption that exists at many different levels. I'm less upset with politicians than [with] the media. I feel like politicians — the way I explain it, is when you go to a zoo and a monkey throws feces, it's a monkey. But when the zookeeper is standing right there and he doesn't say, 'Bad monkey' — somebody's gotta be the zookeeper. I feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates. They're representing a constituency. Our culture is just a series of checks and balances. The whole idea that we're in a battle between tyranny and freedom — it's a series of pendulum swings. And the swings have become less drastic over time. That's why I feel, not sanguine but at least a little bit less frightful, in that our pendulum swings have become less and less. But what has changed is the media's sense of their ability to be responsible arbiters. I think they feel fearful. I think there's this whole idea now that there's a liberal media conspiracy, and I think they feel if they express any authority or judgment, which is what I imagine is editorial control, they will be vilified."

On home vs. work

"You'd be surprised at how easily I turn it off when I go home. ... The kids and I, we watch The Wizards of Waverly Place, and I don't think about it again. ... The real challenge is when I'm at work, I'm at work. I'm locked in, I'm ready to go, I'm focused. When I'm at home, I'm locked in and I'm ready to go and I'm focused on home. We don't watch the show. We don't watch the news. We don't do any of that stuff. I sit down, I play Barbies. And sometimes the kids will come home and play with me."

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