By Michael Beckel
In early 2008, Daily Show contributor John Hodgman defended Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in a segment spurred by Obama's controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"The quintessential presidential spiritual adviser is Billy Graham, who for the last half a century has counseled 11 different presidents with his wisdom and benevolence," Hodgman deadpanned before playing an unflattering audio clip of Graham criticizing Jews to President Richard Nixon.
"Obama actually went to church for 20 years. He listened to sermons. He got involved with the ministry," Hodgman continued. "It makes you wonder if he is really the kind of Christian Americans want in the Oval Office?"
The answer for Hodgman to his own question about whether Obama was suited for the White House was, presumably, yes: By that time this segment aired, Hodgman had donated $500 to Obama's presidential campaign.
Within the next five weeks, Hodgman made two more donations totaling an additional $500. And by the end of 2008, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics, Hodgman donated a total of $4,400 to Obama's presidential coffers and another $1,792 to the Democratic National Committee by way of the Obama Victory Fund -- a joint fund-raising account between Obama's campaign and the DNC.
Many bona fide news organizations have conflict-of-interest rules that prohibit employees from making financial contributions to politicians. But such rules in the world of cable news have become murkier -- even for programs who market "fake news," as the Daily Show has defined its product.
Fake or not, the Daily Show, which routinely interviews powerful politicians, is viewed by many Americans as a legitimate news source. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Daily Show host Jon Stewart is the fourth-most admired journalist in the nation -- no matter that he's not supposed to be a journalist at all.
DIFFERENT NETWORKS, DIFFERENT RULES
Cable news networks don't have a uniform policy when it comes to employees making campaign contributions.
Fox News never reprimanded host Sean Hannity for his financial support to Republicans, including House Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), despite protests from liberals. News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, even openly donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association last June and another $1 million to the politically activeU.S. Chamber of Commerce last fall, as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported.
MSNBC, meanwhile, doled out temporary suspensions to big-name hosts -- namely Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress -- who made campaign contributions without the network's permission.
When asked if Comedy Central or the Daily Show had a policy in place concerning political contributions by employees, the network wouldn't respond.
"As Comedy Central is not a news organization we respectfully decline to comment on this topic," Steve Albani, a spokesman for Comedy Central, wrote in an e-mail to OpenSecrets Blog.
Hodgman, too, as well as Amanda Walker, his publicist at Dutton Books, did not respond to inquiries seeking comment for this story.
DAILY SHOW'S RISING POLITICAL CLOUT
In this environment, the Daily Show's star has been rising, its presence in the political news universe growing. More and more people are tuning into the Daily Show for news and entertainment.
When Daily Show host Jon Stewart interviewed President Barack Obama ahead of the November 2010 midterm elections, the show's viewership surged to its third-highest level ever -- nearly three million viewers, according to The Washington Post.
Last year, in addition to interviewing Obama, Stewart also interviewed former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates Newt Gringrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee all appeared as guests on the Daily Show in 2010, as well. And Pawlenty even returned to the show's studio last month, earning the distinction as the second political guest of the new year and the sole Republican to be interviewed so far this year.
In all, 30 U.S. politicians appeared as guests on the Daily Show in 2010, according to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats held a small but not overwhelming edge.
According to the Center's research, Stewart interviewed 16 Democrats compared to 13 Republicans, including big-name figures as well as government employees appointed by the president such as attorney John Yoo, who served in George W. Bush's Justice Department, and Lisa Jackson, Obama's head of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Steward also interviewed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent.)
American politicians weren't the only ones appearing on the show either; international leaders were also guests on the Daily Show. The King of Jordan -- H.M. Abdullah -- appeared on the show in September. Former United Kingdom Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both were featured guests, too.
The political entertainment has been good for business and for building a devoted following.
In October, the Daily Show's ratings eclipsed those of both Jay Leno's The Tonight Show and David Letterman's The Late Show. In January, the Daily Show beat Conan O'Brien's new program on TBS as the most viewed late night cable talk show among adults aged 18-49.
When Stewart hosted a rally in late October in Washington, D.C., hundreds of thousands of fans descended into the city. And in December, Stewart's drum-beating for legislation designed to provide health benefits to rescue workers who became sick from breathing in toxic fumes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, helped break the legislative logjam and pass the bill.
We were making significant progress, but Jon Stewart really took the push for the 9/11 bill into overdrive by doing two separate nights worth of coverage last week, and drawing attention to this that the networks had not, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) told reporters at the time.
A QUESTION OF LOYALTY
Stewart, who began hosting the Daily Show in 1999, has not made any federal-level political donations during his tenure with the show.
His one and only known beneficiary is Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), to whom Stewart donated $2,000 during Weiner's initial -- and successful -- run for Congress in 1996. (Only contributions exceeding $200 are reported in an itemized fashion to the Federal Election Commission, so it's impossible to know if Stewart has ever donated small sums to other politicians.)
Weiner and Stewart have a personal history going back many years.
As a recent college grad, Stewart and Weiner's girlfriend shared an apartment in the SoHo district of New York City. Weiner was over all the time, making him a de facto roommate. During that time, Stewart and Weiner shared a beach house too.
When Stewart interviewed Weiner on Feb. 4, 2010, Stewart revealed some of that his personal history with Weiner, saying they knew each other during the 1980s. But Stewart omitted the fact that he had also made campaign contributions to his old friend's first congressional bid.
Six months later, in a segment that mentioned Weiner, Stewart again added a caveat that Weiner was a former "summer share pal," and he again failed to mention any former financial ties.
During the past two years, Hodgman, for his part, continued to open his checkbook to support Democratic causes.
Two days after Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) famously shouted "You lie" during Obama's address to Congress about health insurance reform, Hodgman donated $500 to Rob Miller, Wilson's ultimately unsuccessful Democratic challenger. And two weeks before Election Day 2010, he donated an additional $500 to the DNC.
During this time, Hodgman also continued to provide commentary on the Daily Show about a range of topics including the Democrats' priorities of health care reform, new Wall Street regulations and the auto industry bailout.
Excluding, Hodgman, no other contributor or correspondent currently on the Daily Show has any known history of federal-level campaign donations, according to the Center's research.
Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, told OpenSecrets Blog that the risks of making lofty political donations still outweigh the benefits for journalists, cable television hosts and fake news purveyors alike.
"Loyalty with your audience is really important," McBride told OpenSecrets Blog. "If you are Jon Stewart or Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity, the audience has to believe you are there for them.
"Even if journalists or entertainers appear partisan, their value is diminished if they can't take a critical look at a candidate," she continued. "If Stewart is sitting there interviewing a presidential candidate he contributed to, I'm always going to be wondering if he's pulling the punch."