NEW YORK — Behind Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” — whom The New Yorker’s David Remnick has called “our greatest press critic” and whose program is embraced by bloggers frustrated with the mainstream media as well as the MSM itself — is Adam Chodikoff, a boyish 37-year-old producer with an old-fashioned passion for the old-fashioned media.
Chodikoff reads seven newspapers a day in print, sits through hours of hearings on C-Span on a Saturday and watches Sen. John McCain grilling on Rachael Ray’s talk show. But consuming everything is only half the task. The competitive advantage he gives Stewart is having some historical memory in an amnesiac news cycle inherently more invested in the next angle than in context.
This story first appeared in the October 17, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Without credibility,” Chodikoff said, “the jokes mean nothing.” Perhaps that’s why he likes the title The Washington Post gave him: “investigative humorist.”
This rigor isn’t news to regular viewers of the program, but it should comfort the handwringers who worry about America’s youth getting their news from “The Daily Show” alone. In fact, the show gets its news from — the news. The key difference with the blogosphere, at least when it comes to Chodikoff, is that no matter how much press criticism there is on the show, he sees himself as a “mainstream media defender.”
Chodikoff doesn’t use Google to turn up inconsistencies, preferring news stories on LexisNexis, and he ignores Wikipedia. Explaining why he prefers print over the Web, he cites a scene from the movie “Back to School,” when Rodney Dangerfield asks his son why he’s buying used books. “And he says, ‘Because they’re already underlined, see?’ And Rodney says, ‘But that guy could have been a maniac.’ And that’s the problem with the Internet.”
When a Stewart rant fortified by his research generates millions of Web hits, as did the contrast between right-wing pundits’ takes on Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears’ teenage pregnancies, Chodikoff is only vaguely aware. “I’m out of the whole hipster, viral thing,” he says.
The guests he’s been most excited to meet include Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whom he asked to make out his copy of “All the President’s Men” to “the Woodstein of ‘The Daily Show.’” To which Carl Bernstein replied, “How do we know you’re the Woodstein of ‘The Daily Show?’”
Maybe because this “quasi journalist” (his words) does the legwork, like calling the Joint Committee on Taxation to get data on pork-barrel spending. He expects the same scrupulousness in a story about him: “Don’t be like The New York Times Magazine lady and redact everything,” he says. And he frets, often, about whether his comments merit printing. “Is this OK? Is this good copy?…I know all the phrases.”
But while Chodikoff has the ethics of a journalist — for example, recently declining to volunteer for a state Senate campaign even though it’s not officially forbidden — he, Stewart and the writers don’t need access to officials to do their jobs. “Just give me the transcript to the press briefing — it’s readily available,” said Chodikoff. “I don’t have to be in the room. I might not be able to ask questions of [White House spokeswoman] Dana Perino, but I can find stuff and say, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ or ‘This is a funny line that Jon can riff off of.’” And, when Perino was a guest on the show, Stewart asked Chodikoff minutes before airtime to find an example of the White House — having insisted during the Valerie Plame scandal that it doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations — actually commenting on one. (Mission accomplished, with Bush proclaiming Tom Delay’s innocence of campaign finance felonies.)
“You ever seen ‘The Godfather’?” said Chodikoff, a Moorestown, N.J., native who had entry-level gigs at several television shows before joining “The Daily Show” in its early days. “I’m like the guy taping the gun in the bathroom so that Jon can grab it and come out blazing.”
Behind Stewart’s grilling of former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith was Chodikoff with a file of what he calls “pure information.” In anticipation, “Jon basically had me disprove the entire Iraq war,” and Chodikoff saw the interview as a culmination of his work.
It has become commonplace to say “The Daily Show” does the work of the mainstream media — The New York Times, echoing a blog refrain, noted in August that the show “energetically tackled the big issues of the day…in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious.”
Comedic liberty aside, Chodikoff thinks it’s not that simple. “I don’t shake my fist at Brian Williams and say, ‘Oh, Brian, why didn’t you do that?’” he said. “I’m not that much of a screen yeller. Unless I’m watching baseball….Richard Engel and Martha Raddatz and all those people are out risking their lives. I’m in my little cubicle on West 52nd and the biggest thing I have to deal with is the A train coming a little late.”
That said, he’s particularly proud of the moments when his research has pointed out substantive stories the major network newscasts mostly ignored, such as the second phase of the Senate Intelligence report in June, which concluded that the Bush administration lied in making the case for the Iraq war. Stewart skewered the Big Three for using their airtime for froth instead. “When they set themselves up for a target,” Chodikoff said, “I love going in and getting them.”