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Did White House influence 'Daily Show' coverage?

An online report says show host Jon Stewart visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on more than one occasion.

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President Barack Obama, left, talks with Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" during a taping on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in New York.

Evan Vucci/AP

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As Jon Stewart begins his final run on the "Daily Show," a pair of scandals threaten to besmirch his reputation with his left-leaning fans.

Last week, a report circulated that Mr. Stewart blew up at former Daily Show writer Wyatt Cenac over a segment Mr. Cenac, an African-American, said he perceived as racist.

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Now, a report by Politico suggests the influential Comedy Central comic may have been influenced by the White House on a number of occasions, possibly shaping what issues he discussed and what viewpoint he adopted on his popular satirical news show.

Politico details at least two occasions in which Stewart met with the president, who used the Oval Office meetings "to sell the administration’s ideas."

“The White House itself was quite interested in at least explaining its side of the story to Jon Stewart,” top Obama aide Austan Goolsbee told Politico about a 2011 meeting in which Obama wanted to lay the groundwork for his re-election, “up to and including the president.”

The fact that at least one US president has sought out Stewart for one-on-one meetings conveys the funnyman's influence and reach. 

But it also raises questions about how much the influential comedian was himself influenced by the Obama administration – and how that translated to his show and to his audience. 

Besides the October 2011 meeting, in which Obama summoned Stewart in the midst of a heated budget showdown in Congress, the president also invited Stewart for a mid-morning meeting in February 2014 hours before he went on national TV to warn Russia there would be harsh consequences if it continued its aggression toward Ukraine.

The first show that aired after his White House visit skewered – you guessed it – Russian president Vladimir Putin.

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"In a segment titled ‘It’s a Vlad, Vlad, Vlad, Vlad World,’ Stewart giggled as he displayed a picture of the shirtless Russian leader ..." wrote Politico. Then he showed a video of Vladimir Putin at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and wondered if he was 'even paying attention at the Olympics? … Or did you consider the parade of nations a browsing opportunity?'"

That's not to say Stewart is an undiscriminating champion of Democrats. In fact, when it comes to skewering politicians, he doesn't discriminate, as demonstrated by numerous segments taking the Obama administration to task for its Libya attack, its efforts to promote military action in Syria, and its shifting stance on immigration reform, among other things.

“He doesn’t have a permanent allegiance to the Democratic Party by any means,” Mr. Goolsbee said. “But he struck me as he’s got a progressive approach and like a low tolerance for [expletive] slash spin, which Washington is full of.”

Stewart's defenders are quick to point out the good he's accomplished with his influence, like his emotional fight to improve the benefits of veterans and 9/11 first-responders.

“What took us eight years of walking the halls of Congress, Jon Stewart in 22 minutes literally moved mountains and gave us a heartbeat again when we were flat lined,” John Feal, an Army veteran and post-9/11 clean-up worker, told Politico.

Added Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, “I don’t think there’s been a single person in the media who’s more strongly influenced the support of veterans’ policies than Jon Stewart."

But, as with the best Daily Show segments, the story on Stewart's secret White House visits ends with a healthy dose of irony.

As several people interviewed for Politico's report, including Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Obama aide David Axelrod, pointed out, Stewart himself may have had as much influence, if not more, on the workings of government as Obama had on him.

By working in concert with the Obama administration or prodding them via his Daily Show segments, Stewart had an enormous impact on national politics.

“I can’t say that because Jon Stewart was unhappy policy changed. But I can say that he had forceful arguments, they were arguments that we knew would be heard and deserved to be answered,” Axelrod said, adding that he and other White House officials made sure to return phone calls and emails from Stewart and Daily Show staff.

Which is why, when he signs off next Thursday after 16 years on the Daily Show, Stewart may have the last laugh.


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