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Move over, journalists: Jon Stewart is here

Stewart is a funnyman first and may never be taken seriously as a journalist. But the journalistic portion of his show is done better than most of those offered by the blatherheads on TV today.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

In one of the more preposterous overreactions after the last Democratic debate, New York magazine featured an article with the headline, “Do Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos Hate America?” I certainly don’t think that’s true, but there was a significant portion of America that hated those two after they went after Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama like the Spanish Inquisition went after Protestants.

It is grossly unfair to condemn Gibson for one disgraceful performance. He’s an experienced journalist with impressive credentials, and everybody in the media is entitled to one free pass for succumbing to the siren call of their tabloid instincts. The same courtesy cannot be extended to Stephanopoulos, however, who is a pundit, not a journalist. And his principal qualification in achieving pundit status was having been yelled at a lot by Bill Clinton.

Yes, journalism took a beating that night because Gibson and Stephanopoulos went for ratings instead of answers, for scandal instead of substance. Is this the way it’s going to be from here through the November elections? And for that matter, will it extend beyond that because the next election is unofficially scheduled to begin the day after this one?

Where oh where can citizens find honest, straightforward, insightful and penetrating interviews from a bona fide newsman?

No jokeA funny thing happened on the way to broadcast journalism’s pinnacle. A comic threw a few banana peels at members of the establishment, they slipped and fell, and he clambered past them.

As everyone with even a mild interest in politics, the Oscars or comedy knows, Jon Stewart is host of “The Daily Show,” the gem of Comedy Central’s lineup. For quite some time now, the joke has been that Stewart — a faux newsman — is where many young people are getting their news from these days.

This was supposed to represent the end of civilization as we know it. The country has gone from getting its news from such august bodies as The New York Times, the Washington Post and the networks’ evening broadcasts to bloggers writing from their parents’ basement and cable screamfests so tawdry they would have made William Randolph Hearst blush.

But it’s not a joke anymore.

Stewart is a funnyman first and may never be taken seriously as a journalist. But the journalistic portion of his show is done better than most of those offered by many of the blatherheads on television today.

He interviews fascinating people in the news. He goes toe-to-toe with individuals who have been at or near the seats of power in the world, from Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf to Ralph Nader to former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and many others.

Each time out he is often funny, but always prepared. He’ll gently needle Lynne Cheney about her husband, but he’ll also get some straight answers. He’ll crack jokes with Obama, but he’ll also zero in on topics that Gibson and Stephanopoulos would miss because they’re focused on juicy campaign tidbits and personal foibles rather than issues people care about.

Unintentional humorIndeed, most of what Stewart does is for laughs. But the same can be said for much of what passes for news gathering on television these days, especially on cable — except their humor is unintentional.

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With some exceptions, FOX News and CNN aren’t about journalism, they’re about mudwrestling. Whenever I surf channels and see one of their probing special reports, I half expect a bunch of drunken servicemen on leave to stand around the edges of the studio and toss dollar bills at the anchors. And that’s not to absolve MSNBC — it has had its share of grime-grappling, too.

One of the notions describing the yin and yang is that of dynamic equilibrium, that as one aspect of something decreases, its opposite increases. As Stewart has transformed into someone who can deliver the news with integrity and honesty, the folks you thought were trained to do that job have evolved into entertainers.

At this rate, Stewart will host “Indecision 2008” with a pipe and smoking jacket in front of a roaring fireplace while Gibson and Stephanopoulos try to get the attention of the masses on another network by spinning plates or sawing a female anchor in half.

The most remarkable part of Stewart’s transition from Borscht Belt to inside the Beltway is that his comedic cred hasn’t waned. Aside from a small number among the chronically peevish who watch him perform host duties on the Academy Award telecasts just so they can meet later at the whine bar to dismiss it, he’s still the smartest guy in whatever room he works. And “The Daily Show” under his Stewart-ship remains wickedly funny.

If ABC and other traditional news outlets are hell-bent on treating future presidential debates with all the decorum of celebrity roasts, maybe it’s time to hand the microphones over to Stewart and his esteemed colleague, Stephen Colbert. There’s a better than even chance they’ll ask questions about the economy and health care during the first 52 minutes rather than regurgitate picked-over tripe such as the absence of a flag pin on Obama’s lapel or Clinton’s memory of sniper fire in Bosnia.

Of course, they might actually bring a sense of journalistic responsibility to the proceedings, and many of these so-called news organizations may not be ready for that.

Michael Ventre writes regularly for msnbc.com and is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.