“So I say to you tonight, friends: The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So, if you smell something, say something.”–Jon Stewart, in his last episode of the Daily Show.
Jon Stewart ended his sixteen-year run on the Daily Show recently to accolades from all quarters. Politicians and media personalities alike, most of whom he’d criticized over the years, came out to wish him well.
The show will now be led by relative newcomer Trevor Noah, who will hopefully continue Stewart’s tradition, but will likely seek to make his own mark as well.
The influence of the Daily Show extends far beyond the ratings, which were never high. But young people flocked to the show and many used it as a primary news source.
This fact has often been criticized. A satire show– a fake news show–is a source of news for millions? But in reality, it is, in some important ways, better than most traditional sources.
The reason for this is that the Daily Show does what the media should do, what they are supposed to do: hold those in power accountable.
When a politician changes positions and doesn’t want you to know it, the Daily Show shows clips of the conflicting statements. If she makes a claim that is simply counter to the facts, she can count on being skewered in front of a national audience. Political gridlock is continually exposed on the show as are self-serving political and media power brokers.
No one has been safe from Stewart. Fox News naked partisanship was a common target as was CNN for its ridiculous–and generally ineffective– attempts to dazzle us with technology and inane blather.
One of the best moments came in the wake of the financial crisis when Jim Cramer of CNBC came on to defend the performance of the financial media which had not only missed the crisis, but had helped hype the very behavior that caused it, especially among the largest banks.
The piece showed that Stewart, who could be silly and sink to the lowest denominator when it served his purpose, was among the most intelligent figures in the entertainment world. Showing a clip of Cramer’s comments during his role as a hedge fund manager, Stewart told him “I want the Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer.”
Stewart was generally considered a liberal, but he would take on anyone of any stripe when the case presented itself. He went after congress as a whole during the stalemate over bills supporting 9/11 first responders and veteran health care. He’s taken Republicans and Democrats alike and with the same zeal.
Perhaps Stewart’s best moment came, not on the Daily Show, but during a segment on CNN. The show Crossfire had him on as a guest in2004. To their faces, he told the hosts that the show wasn’t just bad, but was “hurting America.” The show, which pitted guests and hosts from the left and right had become “partisan hackery” and “theatre” rather than debate. He begged them to stop the bickering and engage in honest debate holding politicians accountable. His appearance on the show is often credited with its demise, it being cancelled shortly afterwards.
Unfortunately, the public memory is short because CNN brought the show back and it’s not an improvement.
Both of these examples show what Stewart was best at: he was doing the media’s job for them. Their role, or at least part of it, is to hold accountable those in power, to show when they are lying, to explain to us that when candidate A says the sky is red and candidate B says the sky is yellow that in fact the sky is blue. The media fail at this job over and over again, sometimes because they are partisan, but just as often because they are trying to avoid appearing partisan, so they refuse to point out when one side or the other (or even both) are just plain wrong.
This is why so many young people use the Daily Show as a primary news source. They, as fake news, do what the real news is supposed to do. They point out the absurdity of the political world and they do it not just with humor, but with brutal acerbic integrity
Perhaps comedy can do this better than the media anyway. Mark Twain, perhaps America’s best known satirist, pointed out in his last novel, The Mysterious Stranger that laughter was really humanity’s “only really effective weapon.” He challenged us to use it more, stating bluntly that we “lack the sense and the courage.”
Thank you to those who do have those traits.
—An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Porterville Recorder on August 19th, 2015.
Photo credit: Getty Images