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Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: 8 Ways Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Show More Leadership Than Our “Leaders”

August 29, 2011

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Why are two comedians stronger beacons for the American people than our elected officials?

By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**

By arrangement with AlterNet.org.

JEShepherd.JPGDuring Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s tenure spoofing news and politics from Comedy Central (for 12 and six years, respectively), they’ve evolved into two of the most truthful, if sarcastic, journalists on television. But in recent months, they’ve graduated from their media posts and started doing what we want our lawmakers to do—speak honestly, directly and straightforwardly about the most important issues of the day without any vested (or monetary) interests.

Last week, The Nation’s Leslie Savan wrote a post titled “Jon Stewart Does Obama’s Job for Him.’ The post called attention to a characteristically incisive and sarcastic Stewart speech about the right’s “Class War” freakout over Warren Buffett:

Savan’s broader point was that Stewart’s messaging is at this point far more effective than the president’s. Frankly, if Obama sincerely wants to make things better for the American people while combating the lies the GOP perpetuates, he could take a cue from Jon Stewart, who delivered some of the most difficult and least-reported facts about U.S. income inequality and taxes on the rich in a neat, easy-to-digest package.

It might sound absurd to think it, but when Congressional sessions sometimes feel more like a joke than Comedy Central programming (c.f. debt ceiling debate), the world’s gone just backward enough for it to work. Besides, as vaunted journo Keith Olbermann pointed out in his pre-Current Rolling Stone interview, “Comedians are the only ones paid to tell the truth in public discourse. Everybody else—politicians, news broadcasters, religious figures—we’re all paid to be oracles, when in fact we are like a good public-relations man. A good public-relations man keeps you away from the public, and if you have relations, he keeps that hidden.”

In the spirit of that sentiment, here are eight instances when Stewart and Colbert have done better by the American people than the politicians we elected to office. These actions might even recontextualize the “Rally to Restore Sanity”—or at least help make up for its false equivalence.

1. Colbert’s Super-PAC

The tagline is as ridiculous as it is genius: “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow,” riffing on Colbert’s conservative spoof that implies there’s a whole lot of talking, but barely any doing. But where Colbert’s show and persona began as a sarcastic send-up of right-wing journalists—O’Reilly, specifically—the creation of his Super-PAC has solidified his position as a parody of politicians. It’s performance art of the best variety, yet if Al Franken can make Congress, one wonders if Colbert could really make a go at political office?

It seems like the right is taking him seriously. At the last minute, a local Des Moines station declined to air his “Rick Parry” ad, an absurdist-alarmist clip advising Iowa straw poll voters to write in “Rick Parry” for prez. Then, Colbert’s PAC lost its committee treasurer to Rick Perry’s campaign. His amazing response: “We’re not surprised. Sal is the best in the business. That’s why we went with him,” Colbert wrote. “We’re happy for Sal and we are even happier that Governor Parry has sent the clear signal of which super PAC he trusts to receive all that unlimited money waiting to pour in on his behalf. Loud and clear, sir. Unofficially, loud and clear.”

2. Jon Stewart on Citizens United

In January 2010, we knew the Citizens United ruling—which opened the floodgates to unaccountable political funding by corporations—was going to alter the American political landscape in a bad way. We didn’t quite know exactly how bad. (See: November 2010 elections, not to mention subsequent lobbyist intimidation of members of Congress.) Stewart, though, ever prescient, knew what was to come, and also broke down corporate personhood:

“The problem with corporations,” he said, “is that their sole motivation is profit. They don’t have souls, they’re not people, they—” [pregnant pause]

Stewart was trying to underscore a point: corporate personhood is toxic, from the courts down to the votes. Democrats are trying to battle for corporate transparency, but it was Stewart who truly illustrated the complexity of the problem. With graphics, even.

3. Stephen Colbert Testifies to House Sub-Committee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security

Last autumn, Colbert traveled to Washington to sit in on a House Sub-Committee hearing and testify on behalf of the United Farm Workers of America’s “Take Our Jobs” Campaign, which he worked for in upstate New York picking beans and packing corn. While some attendees seated behind him can be seen snickering, and while he couldn’t resist dropping in his signature sarcasm, after a few jokes, his testimony was serious and moving:

“I am here today to share my experience as an entertainer-turned-migrant worker, and to shed light on what it means to truly take one of the millions of jobs filled by immigrant labor. They say that you truly know a man after you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and while I have nowhere near the hardships of these struggling immigrants, I have been granted a sliver of insight.”

Part of the problem with politicians today is that few do really roll up their sleeves and do the difficult, often grueling work of many Americans (and, in this case, migrant workers). Indeed, one of Obama’s selling points/most redeeming qualities in 2008 was his experience in community organizing. In this case, Colbert should be an inspiration to leaders across the spectrum who pay lip service to the plight of workers: try it once.

4. Jon Stewart’s Commentary on the GOP’s Terrible Deficit Plan

Or, in other, better words: “Ryan’s Private Savings.” In April, at the cusp of the budget talks long before they devolved into gridlock, Stewart skewered the plan, which as we know now would have cut $750 billion from Medicaid and completely killed Medicare. Stewart was one of the first to point out that it would put the country on the path to the privatization of health care, eradicating the gains made with Obama’s plan and turning it into a way to pad his cronies with the dollars of the ailing public.

He followed up his economic arc this month with his take on the eventual deal, which he called “DEALAGEDDON: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Compromise.”

5. Colbert on John Kyl on Planned Parenthood

In April, Senator John Kyl argued for slashing Planned Parenthood from the budget on anti-choice grounds, stating on the Senate floor that 90 percent of its services were abortions. (The actual number is around 3 percent.) Later, he defended himself by saying the statement was “not intended to be factual,” meaning… he willfully lied. One can only imagine Colbert’s retort if he’d been in the Senate at that point, but his show was a worthy forum: “You can’t call him out for being wrong, when he never intended to be right!” exclaimed Colbert. “That is an amazingly liberating defense!”

6. Jon Stewart on John Kyl on Planned Parenthood

Not to be outdone, Stewart—whose coverage of abortion has been exceptional thanks to correspondent Kristin Schaal—mostly laid out the facts, while getting in a few toilet-humor jabs about percentages of Kyl’s time in office.

This is one of the best examples of how Colbert and Stewart are acting almost as a fourth branch of government. Not to be too overblown and hyperbolic about it, but they act as their own set of checks and balances, a filter for the people—keeping journalistic integrity that most mainstream media outlets long ago gave up.

7. Jon Stewart vs. Bill O’Reilly

In May, the rapper Common was invited to the White House for Michelle Obama’s poetry night. To most people in the know, this was a non-issue, but right-wingers aren’t exactly known as the biggest hip-hop fans, so they immediately freaked out. Common is considered more of a poet than 90 percent (heh) of rappers, and their outrage was quite absurd. Stewart pointed this out deftly on his show… and then was invited to discuss the fracas with Bill O’Reilly:

Stewart is always fantastic on other media shows—his spot with Maddow when she called him out on the Rally to Restore Sanity was one of the best bits of television last year. But his appearance with O’Reilly was exceptionally mature and grave, showing not only how he would be a great leader, but that he understands pop culture as well as Obama—which, frankly, is another important aspect of being part of the people.

8. Jon Stewart on Ron Paul

Even when he disagrees with the candidate, he manages to stand up for the underdog. Right after the Ames straw poll, he questioned why the media wasn’t taking libertarian Ron Paul seriously, even though he came within 200 votes of beating Michele Bachmann for first place. Certainly media analysis is what he does best—calling out all the ridiculous pundits who skew the truth to support their particular leanings. But it’s his political analysis of Paul that is the most telling: “He’s the one guy in the field, agree with him or don’t agree with him, who doesn’t go out of his way to regurgitate talking points or change what he believes to fit the audience he’s in front of,” said Stewart. He could have been describing himself.

______________________________________________________________________

This post originally appeared at AlterNet.org.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.

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