How can a cable television comedian be the most trusted man in U.S. media? The answer is in the psychology of trust.
Research in communication and psychology clearly shows that to be trusted a communicator has to be seen as knowledgeable and credible. Surface characteristics, such as physical attractiveness, being expressive and articulate, also are connected to perceptions of trust. Jon Stewart has the basics - he's articulate, expressive and appears knowledgeable.
Like Jon Stewart, Nader doesn't seem to have any personal agenda. His goal is trying to get information to U.S. consumers so that they can protect themselves from faulty or dangerous products. Thus, Nader and Stewart both seem to have the public's best interests at heart - and this leads to a strong bond of trust.
But besides skewering smarmy politicians for laughs, what is Stewart's journalistic philosophy? Indeed, the man who told Tucker Carlson that he needed to attend journalism school (without recognizing that the bow-tied conservative isn't that kind of journalist) has a lot to say about how the media should work. For all of his ducking and weaving, and his disingenuous claims that he's but a comic pretending to be a newsman, Stewart aggressively engages those with whom he disagrees, and frequently makes grandiloquent pronouncements about the intellectual atrophy that has befallen America's political and media classes. Stewart, the comedy media critic, says he shouldn't be taken seriously—until it's time to get serious.
In his now-notorious appearance on CNN's Crossfire, he admonished the "partisan hacks" (his phrase) Carlson and Paul Begala, pleading with them to "stop hurting America" and stop "helping the politicians and the corporations." "You have a responsibility," he said, "to the public discourse." In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (whom Stewart doesn't consider a partisan hack, since there is much on which they agree), he grumbled that "The cornerstone of politics these days is grievance." The American "political industry is devoted to the electing and un-electing of officials, and that can be corrosive." When Hardball host Chris Matthews appeared on The Daily Show to flog his book, Stewart, to the glee of bloggers across the partisan divide, let him have it—though, as with the pronouncements above, it wasn't exactly clear what "it" was. Matthews book Life's a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success, he said, "strikes me as a self-hurt book, if you will."
What any of this means is anyone's guess. But Stewart's studio audience—who would explode into fits of cheers if the host denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz—and his network boosters love that he's sticking it to the chattering classes, no matter how incoherent the insult.
At the end of Reality Show, one is left thinking: If Stewart and his network anchor groupies are so concerned about the coarsening of American political debate, the easiest course of action would be to clean up their own shows by not inviting on "partisan hacks" like Chris Matthews. But, for all their bluster, they too are beholden to sinister corporations. And contrary to their endless complaining, America hardly suffers from a dearth of quality news sources.