On Saturday, October 30, Jon Stewart hosted his Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, two Tribune editors face off on whether Jon Stewart has anything important to contribute to American political debate.
Given this past weekend’s grab of the mainstream media’s bewildered attention with his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, there’s been an awful lot of ink spilt about Jon Stewart lately. Alternative bloggers, TV interviewees, and my friends’ Facebook statuses have all but eclipsed anything original there is original to say about how great the “fake news” anchor is. And yet, vitriolic commentators, including voices in this very newspaper, are doing their best to rain on the funny man’s parade. Some decry the fact that a nation’s youth have more faith in a comedian than in politicians; some just think Stewart should decide which of the two he wants to be. I say that if this were a popular 1960s Disney musical, the naysayers would be working for a certain bank too scary to be put in kids’ movies, and Stewart and friends would be that whimsical old man who floats up to the ceiling from loving to laugh so much. To those who think Stewart is not relevant, I invite you to think again.
Stewart is possibly the most important pundit on American television right now. For one thing, he is an astounding journalist. He’s often classified as a fake news anchor, but this is misleading. That he is a comedian doesn’t mean his news is fake; it means he has a shield to say true things even when others won’t. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is fake news, “Weekend Update” is fake news, but Stewart offers wry commentary on actual news stories. If the information he presents is “unreal,” it’s only in the sense that you won’t find it broadcast on major news networks. Yet if another newsgroup ran the exposés on Fox journalists or backpedalling politicians in the way Stewart does, people would call it investigative journalism. Because Stewart aims to get laughs, and because our society believes in this strange perverse notion that what is fun cannot be important, they call it comedy. The difference is semantic. No label can hide that Stewart’s show provides necessary contributions to the American political conversation.
Stewart is also important because he makes news interesting. There is, of course, nothing unique in this: all news organizations put spins on their content so that people will want to consume it. What’s unique is that Stewart’s spin is delivering news in a way that makes his audience laugh, rather than cower in fear. Stewart’s critics often contend that his brand of political comedy leaves his large youth following unabashedly cynical. This is probably true, but I guess what you conclude from that comes down to personal preference—whether you think it’s better in a healthy civil society for news viewers to come away thinking most of their politicians and pundits are crooks, or for them to think that most of their fellow citizens are itching to abduct their children.
Finally, Stewart is important because people think he’s important. From the hundreds of thousands who came to his rally, to the millions who watched Barack Obama on his show and Stewart’s own heralded guest appearances on other cable shows, people think this man is important.
Laughter is the only possible response to Stewart, because the most rational reaction would probably be tears. He’s not the next president. He’s not Edward R. Murrow or Bob Woodward. But in an age when newscaster and politicians are no longer virtual gods, laughter may just be the best medicine. In a house divided at home and overstretched abroad, Stewart is the best defence mechanism America’s got.
In the later Bush years, I watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart every night before going to bed. Stewart provided a perspective on the news which was both funny and serious. He was the Great American Satirist of those difficult times. For one thing, his show provided a significant societal service by digging through hours of television footage for samples of supposedly eminent public personalities saying stupid, offensive, or self-contradictory things. In this way, even if the “alarming” stories about young people only receiving their news through Comedy Central were exaggerated, Stewart fulfilled the entirely different and probably even superior role of distilling an infinite mass of information to a few digestible and highly amusing (if only loosely representative) tidbits, which for me and many others were the basic components of that era’s fundamental structure. They will continue to constitute the reality of what the Bush years were really like to us for the foreseeable future, whether or not we ever lay the bongs aside long enough to realize it.
After the Obama Incident of 2008, pundits pronounced The Daily Show brand of comedy all but dead. It was only, they argued, in opposition to the presence of totally self-unaware neoconservatives in the halls of American government that Stewart’s satire could work. The seizure of power by a young administration for whom the vast majority of Stewart’s fans had voted, and the theory that post-election feel-gooding Americans might not feel so good about the satirist pointing his famously lethal weapons at the first black American ever elected to the White House, seemed destined to move Stewart from somewhere very near the centre of American political life to the outermost fringes, exactly where his opponents at Fox News, in the Republican Party, and elsewhere always wanted him to be.
As evidenced by the deluge of support for Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity, this relocation never took place. The comedian continues to occupy an almost exalted place in contemporary young Am
ericans’ otherwise relatively empty pantheon of beloved public figures. As Stewart has so aptly and repetitively shown over the years, there are few politicians or so-called “media personalities” in whom one can confidently invest any great degree of trust. They almost always seem to disappoint in the end. Stewart promises purity, and we like that.
Though his politics are clear to anyone even partially acquainted with the substance and tenor of The Daily Show, Stewart has always been able to dodge responsibility for those political views by varyingly claiming himself as either a mere comedian or as a critic of the entire political culture, for him a toxic climate caused largely by a fickle and irresponsible media. He has repeatedly denied being a lapdog for the inflamed left, and on the show makes strenuous if not entirely plausible efforts to lampoon overzealous liberals a fraction as strongly as he does their right wing counterparts.
It’s Stewart’s style of capturing and disseminating those audio-visual snippets of political reality that has been taken up by the media he so regularly deplores and repackaged as what journalism should be in the 21st century. A relatively straight line can be drawn between that toxic political climate his rally was supposedly decrying and the very thing he has done, the role he has played, for more than a decade. Whenever a politician or public figure says something offensive or even just off-key, everybody pounces. If his show cannot be blamed for directly causing that “gotcha” atmosphere, it has done nothing, despite Stewart’s gadfly pretensions, to genuinely criticize or seek to reverse it.
I no longer watch The Daily Show at all. His way of trying to dodge responsibility for both his politics and his comedy by alternately posturing himself as more committed to one than the other is sneaky at best. His rally was just a marketing tool, organized by Comedy Central (subsidiary of Viacom), and sponsored by LG, Hershey’s, and Volkswagen. The Daily Show remains tremendously popular despite its bad comedy and unserious politics. This generation will go nowhere so long as we depend on Jon Stewart for our left-flank satire. We can do better— yes, we can.