Earlier this week, Jon Stewart made his departure from The Daily Show after 16 monumental years as its host. During his tenure on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart earned the reputation as “The Most Trusted Man in News” despite being, by his own admission, “just a comedian”. The only other person I can think of that had been bestowed that honor was Walter Cronkite, who was most certainly an actual journalist. So how in the world does a man that made dick jokes on a nightly basis earn such a high honorific over actual journalists? Stewart came to become the face of the generational shift of how the public gets its news and learns about issues. Since the days of Walter Cronkite, 24-hour news channels came into development, the country’s economic model shifted, the FCC got deregulated, and our ways of accessing media became more disconnected. This turned our traditional news media into this.
Comedians tend to pride themselves as being the ones to tell the masses that the emperor is wearing no clothes, so I suppose it would have been inevitable for someone who identified as a comedian to be the one to tell it like it really is. And Jon Stewart took on the role as the leading liaison through all the fog in the dystopic worlds of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
I sit comfortably in the demographic that The Daily Show had the most viewers of. Like millions of others, I started watching it during my freshman year of college and absolutely played a role in the development in my own political ideology throughout my college years.
During my freshman year of college, I watched The Daily Show in conjunction with an “actual news channel”, CNN. Over the course of that year, I grew increasingly frustrated with CNN over its inability to challenge the blatant lies and propoganda their guests spouted out, its obsession with trivial celebrity fodder over topics of actual importance, and purporting to be “objective” yet shaping its news stories based on the extremely partisan framing of Fox News. Jon Stewart gave voice to the same frustrations I was having with the news and with our political system, which I found refreshing. After freshman year, I decided to stick with The Daily Show and I completely stopped watching CNN.
The fact that I and many others looked to a comedy show to get our news over actual news cannot be overstated. Stewart likes to be modest when people tell him things like that, but he needs to know that he was much more than “just a comedian”. And therein lies my biggest issue with Jon Stewart. I feel like his modesty in regards to the influence he wields in our media is false. Perhaps he didn’t ask for it, but he was totally aware of his position in the media. For my money, the best episodes of The Daily Show are the ones where Stewart washed off the clown makeup and got serious. I think Stewart’s proudest moment when I watched his show was at the end of 2010 when he got so incensed over the Senate’s filibuster of a bill that was supposed to offer healthcare to 9/11 first responders that he spent one episode angrily tearing into all the Republicans that voted against it and spent the entire next episode talking to blue collar 9/11 first responders that had all been diagnosed with cancer. The extra attention Stewart made to this awoke the traditional news media (which was asleep at the wheel, like always) and the extra attention humiliated the Republicans that filibustered it so much that the Senate reintroduced the bill and passed it.
The 9/11 first responders bill was one of the only bills that passed that horrifically intransigent Congress. Considering the scores of other bills that didn’t get past the filibuster (immigration reform, stronger financial reform, healthcare reform that took on the insurance companies, etc.) and the unpopular bills that did (permanent extension of Bush tax cuts, Patriot Act, NDAA, military action against Libya), imagine what could’ve happened if Stewart put the spotlight on those as much as he did with the first responders bill. He’s the only person I can think of that purports to give a damn about all of those issues that isn’t marginalized by the mainstream media. This is where his usual “I’m just a comedian” statements become an abdication of his position rather than humility. Like I said before, he probably didn’t ask to be in this position, but the fact is that he was and he most certainly was aware that he was in cases of his convenience. Pointing and laughing at corruption or hypocrisy isn’t enough to make things change, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten as fired up about that 9/11 first responders bill (or about CNN’s Crossfire in 2004) as he did. As a result, this made the rest of his show come off as somewhat apathetic in comparison.
In the years that I watched The Daily Show religiously, I slowly took greater notice to the prevailing sense of apathy that pervaded through the show. This made the show feel very samey and monotonous to me most of the time. Jon Stewart mocking Mitch McConnell’s brazen ignorance towards women’s health last year was the same exact thing as Jon Stewart mocking Mitch McConnell’s brazen ignorance towards women’s health in 2012 or John Stewart mocking Mitch McConnell’s brazen ignorance towards women’s health in 2010. Surely Stewart noticed the monotony here more acutely than I did? Wasn’t he curious as to why Republican and/or mainstream media stupidity never changed one iota over the years? Is it simply because they’re all stupid? Why didn’t he investigate the heart of why this never changed over the years? Why didn’t he follow the money? Why didn’t he at least do more than point and laugh at them? Look, I like Jon Stewart, but let’s be real here; he has a lot more in common socially and economically with the politicians and talking heads he made fun of than he does with the average Daily Show viewer. The consequences of the issues I brought up earlier like failed immigration reform, minuscule financial reform, or watered-down healthcare reform, aren’t going to affect him as acutely (if at all) as his average viewer. He nor anyone in his inner circle are going to be the ones torn away from his family and deported to Central America, lose their only means of income the next time the economy goes under, or has to file for bankruptcy just to pay for hospital bills. I’m not saying that Jon Stewart never cared at all about these things, but in his bubble of privilege he can afford to do no more than point and laugh at people and he can go on believing that the system works barring a few bad apples. His apathy once again shined through in the derisive way that he covered protesters. Most of his coverage of Occupy Wall Street was little more than “ha ha, look at these stoopid hippie douchebags, they’re so naive, they don’t know what they want, why don’t they go home and take a shower”. Geez, even Brian Williams once called Stewart out for how mean he was to protesters. You can’t get more apathetic than this. The Daily Show was conceding that the people at the top were ruining everything, but it dissuaded its audience to do anything more than point and laugh at it. Jon Stewart is completely aware that these are issues that affect people’s lives that warrant more than pointing and laughing. Otherwise, he would have just pointed and laughed when the Senate filibustered the 9/11 first responders bill.
Come to think of it, perhaps Jon Stewart was telling the truth when he would say over than over that he’s “just a comedian”. Certainly Comedy Central (a company owned by Viacom) hired him to be “just a comedian”. At the end of the day, Jon Stewart was beholden to the same corporate interests that all of the politicians and media pundits he mocked are beholden to. Those interests can afford to let someone like Jon Stewart do some light ribbing of it as long as he doesn’t threaten their financial bottom line. Calling politicians stupid for millions of viewers is fine as long as you don’t tell them why those politicians are stupid and who is paying them to be stupid. It’s no coincidence that CNN reacted to his mockery of their network so giddily. It’s no coincidence that he and Bill O’Reilly were frequent guests on each other’s shows. That fancy televised debate he had with him (where he coined the famous phrase “Bullshit Mountain”) was little more than a pay-per-view WWE match. Jon Stewart was allowed to offer catharsis to a frustrated electorate and respect its intelligence as long as he convinced them that they can’t instill change beyond voting
for the same ineffectual Democrats he mocked on a nightly basis. The nadir of Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show was the one time where he mobilized his audience to do something more than point and laugh. Anybody else remember The Rally to Restore Sanity? He sensed his well-informed audience’s frustration with what was going on and he mobilized them for a big whiny false-equivalence, “both sides are so extreme”/Kid Rock concert. The key problem with our political system is not rampant partisanship; the “both sides not getting along” narrative is largely fabricated. Our main problem is how corrupt and plutocratic our systems of government are, which both Republicans and Democrats are completely complicit in. Both sides work together and agree with each other all the time, usually to screw over their respective constituents. The Rally to Restore Sanity was less a call to change the problems with our system and more a big diversion away from the real problem. All Stewart’s rally was was the perfect encapsulation of this:
I know I’ve been pretty hard on Jon Stewart here, but I actually do have a lot of respect and admiration for him. And I acknowledge that Jon Stewart didn’t have to try to change the system if he didn’t want to. All this is is me wondering what could have been if Stewart had taken full advantage of his power and influence in the media. Then again, I suppose if Stewart actually was subversive or a threat to the powers that be, he would have been marginalized a long time ago. Nonetheless, I would’ve liked to see him push a little more.
Adieu, Mr. Stewart. I may have been critical, but my criticism comes from a place of love. Thank you for all that you were able to do, thank you for years of catharsis from a puerile news media, and thank you for boosting the careers of Kristen Schaal and Jessica Williams. Rest well, sir.
I wonder who’s gonna fill the big hole that Jon Stewart has left now…
God, help us all…