(CNN)–What is Jon Stewart? A lot was made of the "Daily Show" host after his D.C. rally, which got major national attention and saw hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance. Recently Stewart took up the cause of the 9/11 first responders, called out the Senators holding up the health care bill and held a powerful panel of first responders to talk about the issue. Late last week, it passed.
Today the New York Times (as well as NPR) profiled Stewart and his successful 9/11 first responder efforts, with the NYT saying it had "echoes of Murrow" – referring to legendary news anchor Edward R. Murrow. Stewart is an extremely influential member of the media. But he is not like Murrow – or even a journalist.
Here is the key question from the Times: "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? 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?"
Quote machine professor Robert Thompson said "the two that come instantly to mind are Murrow and Cronkite," referring to another legendary anchor, Walter Cronkite. "He so pithily articulated the argument that once it was made, it was really hard to do anything else."
What happened with the 9/11 first responders bill was a victory for Stewart, and impressive TV. But it was the exception, not the rule. Stewart often speaks truth to power, and calls out those in positions ranging from the White House to the anchor desk. Maybe he's an advocacy comedian. Maybe he's just a uniquely talented TV host, focusing on politics and current events. In fact, it's hard to knock comparisons to Fox News host Glenn Beck – both draw from visual elements to connect to their audiences. While Beck makes his political points with a chalkboard, Stewart uses edited video clips. And they both use puppets.
A recent New York Magazine profile of Stewart gave a glimpse into the "Daily Show" process. The show is meticulous and well thought out, but when the debate is about the political and comedic merits of a Linda McMahon "nut shot," the Murrow comparison drifts further away. There is no doubt Stewart and his writers have points to make. But if it's not funny, they won't get to make those points very long, on a network that has the word "Comedy" in its name.
Many people are watching, and they are young and influential. Journalists love it – Brian Williams, another person who sometimes gets the Cronkite comparison was quoted again in the NYT piece about Stewart. This could be why the reaction to Stewart's segment reverberated as much as it did across the media. Even the White House took note, with Robert Gibbs saying he hoped Stewart's focus could push the bill forward. But only a small percentage of the country as a whole tunes in to watch whatever it is Stewart does.
Some worried Stewart would be devoid of comedic material once Obama entered office. He's been just fine – sharply critical of the media as well as the Democratic administration. There is little doubt that if the skilled and learned comedian had a "Daily Show" during the time of Murrow or Cronkite, he'd find the occasional opportunity to aim his jabs at the journalistic superstars as well.
Stewart is an outsider – outside the political world, and outside the journalistic world. He navigates this role brilliantly, and in doing so, he can mix the forays into bathroom humor with the occasional turn toward the very-serious: whether it's the recent 9/11 first responders bill, his final speech at the October rally or even his takedown of Jim Cramer in the wake of the financial meltdown.
Jon Stewart is not Edward R. Murrow – because if he was, there would be no Jon Stewart.