LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Congress closed out its lame duck session last week with a vote to pay health benefits for the first responders to the 9/11 attacks. The funding was half as much as Democrats wanted but the fact that the bill passed at all seemed unthinkable just a short time earlier. It had lingered for years and looked nearly dead, until a comedian nudged it over the finish line.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the political power of Jon Stewart.
ARI SHAPIRO: When the Senate passed this bill on Wednesday afternoon, the most revealing thank you may have come from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a tweet. Quote: big thanks to Senator Gillibrand, Senator Schumer, and Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show."
When almost nobody was paying attention to the 9/11 first responders health bill, Stewart devoted the entire half hour of the show to the subject.
Mr. JON STEWART ("The Daily Show"): This bill that is leaving these guys -these guys are dying, and yet, we are abandoning them.
SHAPIRO: The episode was funny at times, but it was also much more earnest than "The Daily Show" tends to be. Stewart interviewed four 9/11 first responders about their health and the impact that the bill could have on them if it passed. His opening segment excoriated Republicans for filibustering the measure and the media for dropping the ball.
Mr. STEWART: Apparently, the party that turned 9/11 into a catchphrase are now moving suspiciously into a convenient pre-9/11 mentality when it comes to this bill. What's more, none of the three broadcast networks have mentioned any of this on their evening newscasts for two and a half months.
SHAPIRO: After Stewart's tirade, that began to change. Even the White House took notice, where spokesman Robert Gibbs said this about Stewart at a briefing last week...
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): I think he has put the awareness around this legislation. He's put that awareness into what you guys cover each day. And that's good. I hope he can convince two Republicans to support taking care of those that took care of so many on that awful day in our history.
SHAPIRO: By this point, Stewart was no longer a voice in the wilderness.
Mr. SHEPARD SMITH (Fox News): How do they sleep at night after this vote on Ground Zero first responders from 9/11?
SHAPIRO: Fox News anchor Shepard Smith started publically shaming Republican senators for opposing the bill. He called Jon Stewart flat-on, absolutely right.
Mr. SMITH: These people ran to Ground Zero to save people's lives. And we're not going to even give them medicine for the illnesses that they got down there? It's disgusting, it's a national disgrace. It's a shame and everybody who voted against it should have to stand up and account for himself or herself. Is anybody going to hold them accountable?
Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Fox News): I think you just did.
SHAPIRO: That last quip was Chris Wallace of Fox.
For a long time now, Jon Stewart has occupied a unique place at the nexus of news, politics and comedy.
Professor S. ROBERT LICHTER (Center for Media and Public Affairs, George Mason University): He's a satirist who has perfected the art of being taken seriously when he wants to and being taken frivolously when he wants to.
SHAPIRO: Communications professor Bob Lichter runs the Center For Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.
Prof. LICHTER: Here's a guy who will tell all comers that he's got a fake news show, it's not a real news shows. And yet, he bludgeons CNN into taking "Crossfire" off the air, presidential candidates announce on his show, the president is a guest. You know, he's become an influential insider.
SHAPIRO: And he has earned that insider status by playing the role of the outsider. The last time the country discussed Stewart's political clout in earnest was in October, when Stewart drew an estimated 200,000 people to the National Mall for his Rally to Restore Sanity.
Mr. STEWART: The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic.
SHAPIRO: Some critics accuse Jon Stewart of missing an opportunity with that rally. They said, he can bring hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall, but for what, to what end? The passage of the 9/11 first responders health bill may answer that question.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.