Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Scabs?
You bet. Think twice before tuning in.
Don't fool yourself: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are scabs. As members of the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, both hosts officially crossed the picket lines of striking writers by taping new episodes this week. While fans of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" may be happy that their favorite faux-news programs are back on the air, progressives should think twice before tuning in: The show clearly has pre-written scripts, and Stewart's and Colbert's decisions to tape new episodes is a slap in the face to the writers who have been on strike since early last November.
No one, not even the reporters over at the New York Times, have been able to figure out why Stewart and Colbert have decided to return to the air. In a joint statement released on Dec. 20, Colbert and Stewart expressed their desire to show their “ambivalence” about the strike, but lamely joked that without their writers they were “unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence.” This statement epitomized the hosts’ partially apologetic yet derisive attitude toward the whole ordeal.
There's a case to be made that Colbert's and Stewart's decisions aren't completely an affront to the writers’ cause. After all, going back on the air provides a job and much needed paychecks for the cameramen and stagehands that have also been out of work since the strike. And the move is rooted in precedent. During the 1988 Writers Guild strike, Johnny Carson, who was not a member of WGA, continued to air new episodes of his show. It was easy for him to portray himself as a hero because other than a little extra work writing jokes with Ed McMahon, the strike didn’t directly affect Carson. Publicly, he supported the writers and was praised for it. Had Carson decided to not air new episodes of his show, ratings would have dropped and the network would have suffered. Instead, Carson maintained his ratings, kept the network content, supported the writers, and gladly accepted his paycheck at the end of the day. In reality, Carson was a bit more of an opportunist than a voice for the hard-working, underpaid writer. Colbert and Stewart are trying to follow Carson’s lead, but it’s not working.
While this may partially excuse Stewart and Colbert, it does not protect them from all criticism. Over the last few years, their shows have become widely popular and even gained status as credible news sources that maintain a level of satirical edge wholly unique from almost any news show or program in the United States. Stewart and Colbert’s comedy has developed a reputation and following. They are two reliable voices that are willing to expose the falsities, errors, and absurdities of American politicians and pundits. That is why their actions and the slant of their current critiques regarding the labor dispute are so surprising.
In an interesting choice, Stephen Colbert invited Harvard professor and leading labor economist Richard Freeman, the author of America Works, to be a guest on Monday night’s show. After a brief interview in which Colbert called him a “blue-collar brute,” the host asked his guest a poignant question loaded with meaning.
“Are you a part of a union?”
Freeman answered no. Colbert seemed to be suggesting that a non-union member really doesn't have the perspective—or the right—to criticize the players in the union strike.
The bottom line, though, is that every joke on the shows this week was made while the writers remained on the picket lines without pay, and as Stewart and Colbert continued to collect paychecks. As viewers, we should expect the hosts to make us laugh while still carrying on their tradition of being socially and politically poignant. As high-profile members of the WGA, they have the potential to be loud and effective figures in the strike. We do not usually know the names, much less the faces, of the writers of our favorite shows. Who better to take up the cause than famous figures like Stewart and Colbert that are also card-carrying members?
It is still to be determined whether or not their defiant actions have actually undermined the efforts of the writers. Until then, the real question lies with the viewers. How much do we care? Because networks depend so much on ratings, our decision to view or not view determines on which side of the picket line we stand.
Saxon Baird is a senior at Portland State University.