Jon Stewart’s New Role as Activist Raises Questions

by | December 22, 2010 at 1:47 PM | Cable News, The Daily Show, TV News

Jon Stewart of 'The Daily Show' (Photo: Comedy Central)

Jon Stewart of 'The Daily Show' (Photo: Comedy Central)

How much longer can Jon Stewart get away with portraying himself as simply a comedian sitting on the sidelines of politics?

The question is being asked because of Stewart’s recent advocacy in favor of financial compensation for 9/11 rescue workers. These are the “first-responders” who rushed to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York in the days and weeks after 9/11 to help clear away the wreckage, and are now suffering from health issues stemming from their exposure to unseen toxins at the site.

Stewart’s activism has even been noticed at the highest levels of government, with President Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, telling reporters this week that the attention Stewart is paying to the issue of 9/11 compensation might help it get through the Senate, Politico.com reported.

Last week, Stewart was harshly critical of Republican senators who opposed a bill to provide $7.4 billion in medical benefits to the first-responders. On ““The Daily Show,” Stewart voiced his displeasure in a way that was a far cry from the “comedic” approach he usually strives for.

Full Episode: Stewart Blast Republicans over the Treatment of 9/11 First Responders

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Instead of cracking jokes or resorting to sarcasm, the Comedy Central funnyman was just blunt – more like a Keith Olbermann than a David Letterman. “I can’t wait for them to take to the floor to talk about why their party hates first responders,” Stewart said, according to an account on Slate.com.

There was even a follow-up segment called “Worst Responders,” the Slate column said, “in which [Stewart] called the refusal to pass the 9/11 bill ‘an outrageous abdication of our responsibility to those who were most heroic on 9/11.’ … ‘It’s a win-win-win-win – just [bleep] do it!’ ” Stewart also had four first-responders on his show as guests, in an interview segment that was, understandably, not played for laughs.

Watch Full Episodes of “The Daily Show” on xfinityTV.com

The Slate column – by political reporter Christopher Beam – notes that other news organizations seemed to pay more attention to the 9/11 compensation bill after Stewart focused on the issue and complained that the media was ignoring the story. Among those who took up his cause: Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (who praised Stewart for his “campaign” and, even more surprisingly, had kind words for Smith as well).

It remains to be seen if Stewart will take up any other causes in a similar way. After all, he’s a closely watched media figure, and will have to tread carefully if he seeks to evolve from sideline comedian to activist commentator. Or, it could simply be that Stewart is making an exception just for this particular issue, since, as a resident of lower Manhattan, this issue hits close to home.

What do you think of Jon Stewart these days? He draws partisan crowds wherever he goes (such as last October’s Rally to Restore Sanity, staged with Stephen Colbert). Can he still be “just a comedian,” or has he evolved into something more than that – a politician, perhaps?