Jon Stewart leaving: Who will speak truth to power now?

Jon Stewart

Comedy fans received a blow to their funny bones with Jon Stewart’s announcement that he’ll be leaving The Daily Show this year.

For 16 years, Stewart has walked the nation through the pitfalls and idiocies of the news cycle. It didn’t matter if you were a politician or a pundit, a celebrity or an everyday Joe or Jane, a news anchor or a foreign dictator, a Republican or a Democrat. If you did something stupid, chances are that Stewart and his cohorts would find a way to skewer you on their “fake news” program. He called out Republicans for hypocrisy and Democrats for cowardice. Stewart seemed as comfortable interviewing an obscure academic author as he did a senator or a president.

Sure, the humor could be sophomoric — sometimes you got the feeling the writers were middle school boys trying to sneak in as many dirty jokes as possible. Stewart’s interviews of celebrities often turned into gushing love-fests or meaningless in-jokes. His “accents” always ended up sounding like a New Jersey or New York tough guy, sort of a dim-witted extra on The Sopranos. No, we didn’t watch Stewart for his acting chops. If you don’t believe me, try renting Death to Smoochy. But how often did you see a headline or hear a piece of news and the first thing you thought of was, “I can’t wait to see what they do with this on The Daily Show“?

Stewart was brutal about the Iraq War, or the Mess-o-potamia, as the show often referred to it. Bush administration officials were the brunt of many barbs. But President Obama, too, was on the receiving end of much not-so-veiled criticism.

Stewart’s favorite target was probably the news media, mostly Fox News. The Daily Show became masterful at running contradictory clips of the same speaker giving completely different opinions, depending on who was being praised or criticized, for the exact same action. Stewart wasn’t afraid to call out lies — something other media are often too hesitant to do. Stewart would play a clip, deliciously drawl out the words, “Go on,” in his inimitable style, and then play the second clip, exposing the speaker’s hypocrisy.

Perhaps nothing summed up Stewart’s attitudes toward the news media as much as his piece on the Brian Williams controversy. The NBC Nightly News anchor had given a false account of his experience covering the Iraq War in 2003, saying he had been riding in a helicopter that was shot down by RPG fire. In fact, he was in a later helicopter that may or may not have gotten hit by machine gun fire (no doubt I’m “misremembering” the details).

If you’ve seen Williams as a guest on The Daily Show, you could tell that the two men genuinely liked each other and shared a rapport. That didn’t stop Stewart from calling out his old friend for his falsehoods. But the close look at the Brian Williams’ brouhaha brought up a more salient point.

“Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War,” Stewart said to laughter and cheers.

You can guess what came next. “It might not necessarily be the first person you’d want held accountable on that list.” Never again will Williams “lie about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual fucking war. In fact, why is the media so up in arms?”

Stewart showed clips from various news shows talking about a “credibility crisis” that the Williams lies had caused. They were silly and got only sillier. He then showed clips of Bush administration officials touting the war, ending with Vice President Dick Cheney repeating the now-debunked statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

“The run-up to the Iraq War was kind of beautiful in the evil efficiency of its media manipulation,” Stewart said, “Not that they weren’t hard on themselves, post cluster-fuck.” The next set of clips showed figures from major news organizations such as The New York Times, CNN, NBC, and ABC congratulating themselves on their fine and “fair” work covering the war, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer reminding reviewers that journalism is just the “first draft of history.”

“But it wasn’t even your draft,” Stewart said. “You were just copying off Cheney’s paper.”

Stewart then went on to skewer the coverage of the Williams story — how it had become over the top, especially in right-wing media, to the point of a local TV reporter asking whether it was one or two puppies that Williams had rescued in a fire.

Here’s another important thing Stewart did for the country. He got at least some younger people to pay at least some attention to the news. According to a report from Pew Research, 29 percent of those younger than 25 say they don’t pay attention to news, whether it’s from digital or traditional news platforms. Those in the 18-29 age group get news primarily from the Internet — 71 percent — with 55 percent getting news from TV. But those same people watched The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. The 18-29 age group made up 43 percent of the Colbert audience and 39 percent of The Daily Show audience.

When it came to actual news knowledge — again, according to the Pew survey — viewers of The Daily Show knew more about news than consumers of many other news media. When asked four questions about today’s news, 61 percent of Daily Show viewers scored either three or four questions right. Only viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show, readers of the New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal and similar publications, or NPR listeners scored higher. Far down the list of people getting three or four questions right were those who listened to talk radio, which is heavily right-wing (22 percent), those who watched local news programs (38 percent), and those who watched Fox (39 percent) and CNN (35 percent). A Washington Post column asked the question, “Where will young liberals get their news now?”

Stewart was not the first political satirist, nor will he be the last. Remember that Thomas Nast invented the political cartoon in the late 1800s, basically bringing down William “Boss” Tweed in New York City. Saturday Night Live will continue to lampoon politicians and celebrities.

Interestingly, news of Stewart’s departure came an hour before NBC announced that Brian Williams would receive a six-month suspension with no pay, and many news organizations had to cover both news items simultaneously. The effect of both men’s tenure was discussed and debated and will continue to be in days and months to come.

But for the future generation, maybe NPR reporter Don Gonyea summed it up best in a tweet: Here’s what 17 yr old in my house said when asked if Stewart or Williams is bigger story: “Who’s Brian Williams?”

(Note: This post ran in February when Stewart announced he was leaving his long-running program. Given the current political climate, the buffoonery of the GOP presidential political contest, and media coverage of all of it, the post seems just as relevant now.)

One Comment on “Jon Stewart leaving: Who will speak truth to power now?

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