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Jon Stewart "Is Not a Walter Cronkite," Opines Prof. Jeff McCall '76

August 13, 2015

The "glowing accolades" Jon Stewart is receiving after wrapping up a successful run on TV's Comedy Central "seem out of proportion" to Jeffrey M. McCall.  Writing in the Detroit News, the professor of communication at DePauw University opines that Stewart "is not a Walter Cronkite. He is a comedian. While comedians using news events and newsmakers as material for comedy is a long-treasured tradition of American television, some boundaries between news and entertainment need to be maintained, even in this era of infotainment. Stewart’s show surely blurred those boundaries."

Dr. McCall observes, "You have to hand it to Stewart. He created a loyal following and made huge money for himself and Comedy Central’s big media parent, Viacom. He created a signature style of comedy and delivered it for 16 years. He became the darling of media elites. He even got private chats with President Obama in the White House."

But the professor adds, "Stewart’s audience, which trended younger, was too often left with an impression they were being informed on the issues of the day. In reality, they weren’t. Academic research shows that young adults who watch late night comedy think they are getting informed about political news, but theSteven Levitt Jon Stewart Oct09 info gains are modest or negligible. People tuning in comedy shows want to be entertained. Viewers who want serious news are not heading to Comedy Central. That Americans, particularly younger citizens, fare poorly on awareness of current events is a national problem. That they think they know more news than they do makes it worse." (at left: Stewart interviews Steven Levitt, economist, author and Ubben Lecturer at DePauw, in 2009)

McCall, author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences, states, "America’s political atmosphere is polarized, and there is distrust of public officials and anybody who holds differing opinions. Stewart’s biting perspectives, while often quite comedic, might well have contributed to that environment. His routine often contained corrosive cynicism. Public figures’ errors or misstatements were belittled. Soundbites of politicians were used for comedic effect, often without sufficient nuance or context. His audiences howled in delight at Stewart’s bleep-filled rages, but the ultimate effect could have soured younger citizens on the political process, thus disengaging them from the public arena."

The professor's column concludes, "It certainly is the American way that everybody gets to work their mouth, but not all voices are necessarily productive in moving the nation’s dialogue forward. DSC8736Stewart found a comedic niche and gained a voice on the national stage, but he will never be confused for providing Eric Sevareid-style political analysis."

You'll find the essay -- which is being published in several American newspapers -- in its entirety at the News' website.

A former journalist, Jeff McCall is a 1976 graduate of DePauw and faculty adviser to student radio station WGRE. His comments on media matters have appeared in more than 100 newspapers. Dr. McCall was cited last weekend in a New Orleans Advocate story on the role of traditional media outlets in modern presidential campaigns and authored a USA Today op-ed previewing last week's first Republican presidential debate.

McCall served as moderator for the March 31 Ubben Lecture featuring Dan Quayle, 44th Vice President of the United States and 1969 graduate of DePauw, which is embedded below.

Source: Detroit News

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