Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jon Stewart as Edward R. Murrow

No joke. The New York Times reports:

Did the bill pledging federal funds for the health care of 9/11 responders become law in the waning hours of the 111th Congress only because a comedian took it up as a personal cause?

Mr. Stewart declined to comment on the passage of the bill.

And does that make that comedian, Jon Stewart — despite all his protestations that what he does has nothing to do with journalism — the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow?

...

There have been other instances when an advocate on a television show turned around public policy almost immediately by concerted focus on an issue — but not recently, and in much different circumstances.

“The two that come instantly to mind are Murrow and Cronkite,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University.

Edward R. Murrow turned public opinion against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Mr. Thompson noted that Mr. Murrow had an even more direct effect when he reported on the case of Milo Radulovich, an Air Force lieutenant who was stripped of his commission after he was charged with associating with communists. Mr. Murrow’s broadcast resulted in Mr. Radulovich’s reinstatement.

Walter Cronkite’s editorial about the stalemate in the war in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968 convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that he had lost public support and influenced his decision a month later to decline to run for re-election.

Note, however, that W. Joseph Campbell writes:

Embedded in the Times article were two prominent media-driven myths, both of which I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

One was the notion that Murrow’s half-hour television report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 turned public opinion against the senator and his communists-in-government witch-hunt. In fact, however, McCarthy’s favorable ratings had been falling for a few months before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954.

The other embedded myth was the allusion to the “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968. That was when Cronkite declared on-air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. Supposedly, Cronkite’s analysis was an epiphany for President Lyndon Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was a shambles.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was scarcely novel or stunning at the time. And Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite report when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, attending a birthday party for a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

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