Schwartz: What Jon Stewart Taught Me About Advocacy

April 20, 2015

By Melissa Schwartz
Published date: April 14, 2015

In December 2001, I watched my boss do an interview on The Daily Show. I had never heard of the program, but our research indicated that the host (some guy named Jon Stewart) would be receptive to our advocacy messages about the dangerous language inserted into the Patriot Act in the days after September 11.

I sat with my hands covering my face as ACLU Board President Nadine Strossen, one of the smarter and more articulate people I had met in my professional life, was caught completely off guard by Stewart’s interview style, which was laced with humor and jokes.

My early lesson in the ways of Jon Stewart was that it wasn’t enough to get great exposure. Getting on the show was a huge success in and of itself, but it was not enough. And even if Stewart shared our passion, he would not serve as a mere prop to help deliver our message.

With access to more viewers than any press conference, Stewart has pushed his interview subjects — then and now — to not just bring their A game, but their A+ game. He does his homework, asks hard questions and often has a trick up his sleeve to (best case) bring levity or (worst case) throw the person being interviewed completely off her game.

For years, I have hammered this message home: How you deliver your message is as important as the words you communicate.

But last week, Jon Stewart reinforced a different lesson for advocates: Passionate on-air talent can do more for an issue than an advocate can dream of.

I have watched nearly every Daily Show since that episode in 2001. The segments that make me cringe? The “correspondent” features that often create awkward and uncomfortable moments as individuals — many times elected or regulatory officials — are called out for their hypocrisy or inconsistency. (Daily Show correspondents are in fact talented comedians who take on the role of news correspondent as part of the show’s satiric presentation.)

At the end of last week, correspondent Samantha Bee dedicated her sketch to shedding light on the lack of protection for survivors who are impregnated after a sexual assault and choose to carry their pregnancies to term. In many cases, these survivors face significant challenges in keeping their rapist from fighting for parental and custodial rights.

Bee did what none of us could. She found a way to put the spotlight on this tragic issue, call out the dysfunction within federal and state government that has kept protections from being made law, and bring levity to the issue of sexual assault in a way that respected the survivors she was speaking about.

I like to think that reporters are advocates for the truth rather than for the subjects on which they report. But we cannot ignore that when reporters care about an issue, their passion can become clear in their segments — in the depth that they engage; in the time they invest on air; and in their determination to sustain the focus.

As advocates, air time on an issue is a gift. As public affairs professionals, it’s our job.

A lesson to be found in the midst of chuckles? Although spending significant time briefing a reporter can be a huge time investment when vying for placement, it can reap significant rewards.

I join the chorus of viewers lamenting Jon Stewart’s retirement. Not just for my own personal entertainment, but because he created a platform for advocates to give it their best shot.

And taught us a few things in the process.

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