I enjoy and admire Jon Stewart immensely, but you will not find my name on the petition urging the Commission on Presidential Debates to select him to host a debate during the 2016 campaign.
It’s not that Stewart lacks qualifications to moderate an exchange between the candidates for the White House. As host of The Daily Show for 16 years, he interviewed some of the most powerful people in the world. He asks insightful, challenging questions that illustrate how well educated and informed he is on domestic and international affairs.
So why is a man with such credentials a poor choice to host a presidential debate?
Let’s start with perception.
Despite his impressive resume, Stewart made his name on a network called Comedy Central hosting a show described as fake news. Also, he consistently has resisted being labeled a journalist.
“You’re on CNN; the show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls,” he told the hosts of Crossfire in a well-known 2004 interview in which he was criticized for the type of questions he asked then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
As it is, the general public is taking politics less and less seriously. The first debate of the 2016 campaign did little to alter that perception. Throwing Stewart into the mix would only add more fuel to the fire.
Instead of evaluating the candidates’ policies and positions during the build-up to the debate, viewers might ponder whether Stewart would be funny or serious. Or whether he would question one candidate as aggressively as the other. Or if the candidates themselves might attempt to inject some humor into the discussion. His presence likely would overshadow the real reason why the candidates are facing off in nationally televised exchange – to give American citizens an opportunity to compare them side by side to help decide whom to vote for in November.
Don’t get me wrong. The thousands who have signed the petition calling for Stewart to host a debate are thinking along the right lines. Debates have lost much of their value. Campaigns negotiate formats that give candidates short times to answer questions so they can craft their responses into sound bites. The formats often fail to provide for ample follow-up questioning, allowing candidates to evade actual inquiries and to quickly turn questions into opportunities to repeat their talking points.
Although Stewart rarely let his guests get away with such tactics during his interviews on The Daily Show, he would have a more difficult time holding the candidates’ feet to the fire if forced to work under the constraints of a presidential debate.
Stewart clearly is an entertaining and talented individual. He is only 52 years old, so we are likely to hear much more from him. Just don’t expect to hear him from the stage of a national presidential debate.
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