To Jon Stewart, Ethics Hero: I’m Sorry I Doubted You.

Impossible conflict of interest? No problem!

I’m also glad that I waited before posting my article labeling Stewart, the much-revered cultural force who chairs Comedy Central’s satirical news hour, “The Daily Show,” an Ethics Dunce for wimping out in his initial tepid take on the Rep. Weiner scandal.

Stewart is a good friend of the sexting, lying New York Congressman, and for most comedians, leaving a high-profile friend in trouble off of their comic hit-list would not only be acceptable, but admirable. A comedian only has the obligation to be funny, and if he  chooses to be funny without slicing up a close friend in crisis, that just makes him a kind and loyal friend. Stewart, however, can no longer claim to be just a comedian. He has built a reputation as a truth-teller, leaning to the left, perhaps, but still willing to skewer idiocy, corruption, hypocrisy and dishonesty whenever and wherever they surface in current events. This means he is trusted, and that he has a duty to make  his audience laugh while displaying integrity, fairness, wisdom and good judgment. It’s a high standards to meet, but it is also the one Stewart set for himself by reaching it again and again.

He failed that standard with his foray into Weinerville, keeping his barbs mild and mostly whining about how hard it was to make fun of someone he cared about. Jon Stewart had a clear conflict of interest, and handled it badly, disappointing the audience to whom he owed his primary loyalties. If Stewart’s friendship with Weiner prevented him from doing his job—that is, ridiculing Weiner’s spectacularly ridiculous conduct to the skies—then he should have recused himself, bringing in an unbiased, conflicted satirist to do the Congressman justice. In choosing loyalty to a friend over doing his job, Stewart violated journalistic ethics, if not comedian ethics. If you want to argue that he is only a quasi-journalist, fine: he breached quasi-journalistic ethics too.

But just as Stewart thought he didn’t need to roast Weiner on “The Daily Show” because the Congressman was being crisped everywhere else, I decided to withhold Stewart’s Ethics Dunce because I saw him being widely criticized elsewhere for ducking his responsibilities. Then, on Wednesday, Stewart  regained the trust of his audience by returning with a devastating parody of Weiner’s mea culpa orgy, doing his own faux press conference in which he apologized for being too easy on his friend. And yes, in the process, Stewart shredded Anthony Weiner, his friend, into tiny, jagged, funny pieces.

Astoundingly, Jon Stewart pulled off the perfect conflict of interest resolution: meeting his obligations to two diametrically opposed and adverse stakeholders. It took him two days, but since his achievement is the ethics equivalent of squaring the circle, balancing the Federal budget and the Roommate Switch, two days is still miraculous. He met any perceived duty of loyalty to his friend, by holding his fire even when Stewart had to know he would be criticized for it, and then brilliantly satisfied his obligations to his audience with a fresh, clever, no-holds barred Weiner riff. He regained his audience’s trust, and if the Congressman can’t take a joke when he has made himself a joke, and de-friends Stewart despite the comedian’s deft resolution of a clash of personal/professional ethics, well, good riddance.

You’re too good for him anyway, Jon.

And congratulations.



4 thoughts on “To Jon Stewart, Ethics Hero: I’m Sorry I Doubted You.

  1. Jack,
    Umm .. I agree that Jon Stewart has proven himself to be quite ethical, but I don’t see how one can argue comedians (even respected ones) have a duty to be fair-and-balanced in their jokes. He’s trusted by many, yes, but has said more than a few times “don’t look to me for answers,” nor has he ever straddled the gray line between comedy and commentary the way others like Bill Maher have. Moreover, the whole Weiner scandal is so much of a punchline already (and, so far, waste of time) that it’s already become an instant cliche.

    PS: ‘Recuse’ himself?!? Really?

    • Which is what I said, except that Stewart no longer qualifies as a just a comedian…not when so many people get their news coverage from him, not when his take is used extensively by the networks. His protestations have always been the weakest part of his ethics, as he has crossed into serious commentary and then claims comic immunity later. He forfeited pure comic status when he double-crossed “Cross-Fire” and refused to be funny.. His proper precedents are comics like Mort Sahl.If you are going to build your reputation as a truth-teller, then you better tell the truth.

      He hasn’t straddled the line? Boy, I sure think he has, and frequently. His rally straddled the line.

      Sure recusal. The pre-eminent political media satirist ducking the Weiner scandal? Uh-uh—if he couldn’t do it justice, then he should have brought in Lewis Black to do the job right. He had a duty to, in fact, because of what the show is. At this point, I really do regard Stewart as a political commentator, as opposed to Maher, who is just a self-inflated jerkola.

  2. Jack,
    You miss my point entirely. Their ARE no comedian ethics .. you’re applying other ethical considerations out of context in a field they don’t cover. If they Daily Show ducked the scandal completely, that’s their lookout, and the viewers would ultimately decide if it was a good call or not. This is akin to arguing Family Guy would have an “obligation” to do just as many jokes for Democrats as they do for Republicans.

    I get tired of the argument that “because people take Stewart seriously, he needs to act seriously.” However infrequent his protestations may be, he makes them quite vociferously when he does. Moreover, when he appeared on Crossfire he refused to be funny because it was a “serious” show and was also extensively baited by Carlson for not being serious enough on his own show.

    You’re right, Jon Stewart is no longer “just” a comedian in the same way that Brian Williams isn’t just a news anchor (he also acts often as “himself”); yet few have trouble differentiating between the two. Since when is it unethical for comedians to state their actual opinions? He’s not misrepresenting facts or covering up and issue, he simply refused to immediately comment because it struck close to home. After all, even those who use the Daily Show as their sole outlet for news don’t consider it fully unbiased, nor does it try and guise itself that way. This is much the same reason I’m more tolerant of Michael Moore than I might normally be (although he does lie and misrepresent facts, and blurs the line WAY more than Stewart ever has) .. he makes his bias known.

    Jon Stewart can’t recuse himself because he’s under no obligation to do anything of the sort. Comedians are entertainers and they serve at the pleasure of their audiences and they, ultimately, are the ones who get to decide what is and is not worth saying.


    • I feel like we agree completely, except on the status of Stewart. He can’t deny his status. He’s stuck with it. People do not assume he’s being funny and only being funny, and he’s not. Stewart used to be much less even-handed, almost as left-leaning as Maher, and then he began using material from all ideological perspectives…and he did that because he realized that his commentary was being taken as more than just jokes.When you move toward H.L. Mencken and Will Rogers, and that’s where the Daily Show is, you’re kidding yourself if you call yourself just a comedian. Different role, different ethics. The fact that he needed to either recuse himself or go after his friend is proven by the criticism. Ever her anyone criticize Bob Hope or Johnny Carson, or now Letterman or Leno for NOT making a joke? Never. Te reason why Stewart was getting slammed is that he has raised the bar, and he can’t fall back onto “I’m just a clown.” He’s not.

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