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.