Jon Stewart has made us laugh at politics – and restored our sanity
The Daily Show, a satirical news programme hosted by John Stewart, has attracted a huge following and triggered discussions and debate on the role of these kinds of programmes in the reporting of political news. As Stewart prepares to leave the Daily Show after 14 years, Allaina Kilby takes a critical look at this format. Her piece was carried in The Conversation which is an independent, not-for-profit media outlet that uses content sourced from the academic and research community.
Over a decade ago I had no real interest in politics and current affairs. But all that changed when I unintentionally found myself watching The Daily Show for the very first time. The show was unlike anything I had seen before. Here was a presenter critiquing the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina but in a biting, humorous take down. I was immediately hooked. Jon Stewart had sparked my interest in politics and has done ever since, so to hear that he is to leave The Daily Show after 16 years at its helm is rather saddening for someone who looks forward to his satirical take on the news.
Stewart has become an important satirical voice and social commenter in an age that marked the end of the dominance of the old TV news networks. He is a trusted voice for many young people who have become disillusioned with traditional news formats and who instead want personally relevant, critically entertaining news commentary.
Anyone not familiar with Stewart’s work might question why a comedian who presents a satirical news show on Comedy Central has become so important to politics. But Stewart hasn’t just made us laugh, he’s encouraged us to think critically about how news is served to us – to unpack it and question it, rather than simply consuming it as the absolute truth. He also makes us feel as if he’s on our side by passionately articulating our political concerns in a seemingly eloquent and hilarious manner.
There are countless examples of Stewart’s impressive back catalogue of news critique, all of which support his credentials as a bona fide social commentator.
After the near collapse of the economy in 2008, Stewart interviewed Jim Cramer, a financial television personality who presented CNBC’s show Mad Money. It was a tough and investigative interview that saw Stewart asking the questions that were really on peoples’ lips, including an interrogation of Cramer’s suggestion that viewers should invest in the global investment bank Bear Stearns just before its collapse.
Despite protests from Cramer about the professional conduct of his work, Stewart dug up a rather incriminating piece of footage in which Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, explained how people like him could alter the financial system for financial gain. It was a prime example of journalism that we should see from all news outlets but rarely do.
Voice of reason
With partisan political commentary becoming a staple fixture in American news, Stewart has continually advocated a more deliberative and less aggressive form of political dialogue. In his renowned interview on CNN’s Crossfire, Stewart argued that the show didn’t provide balanced political commentary – it was a contrived piece of partisan political theatre posing as a viable public affairs programme. The audience cheered and CNN obviously took note of these criticisms. Just a few weeks later the programme was cancelled.
Stewart’s defence of bi-partisan politics and news was impressively illustrated by the Rally to Restore Sanity that he organised with fellow broadcaster Stephen Colbert in 2010. The rally was billed as Million Moderate March and became an event for people that were politically dissatisfied with the growing partisan nature of the media and political world.
What the rally hoped to achieve was not entirely clear, even in his keynote speech at the end Stewart admitted not knowing exactly what it was all about. He did however suggest that all was not lost and that civil discourse and political co-operation was still possible. Of course, the rally may not have changed the state of American political discourse but it showed the extent of Stewart’s power and those who identified with his message. In the end, more than 250,000 people flocked to the Washington Mall to attend.
Where audiences flocked, politicians eventually followed. Many abandoned a traditional reluctance to appear on comedy shows for fear of being mocked and ridiculed; they showed up at the studio in their droves.
During the 2004 primary season, all nine of the Democratic candidates went up against Stewart and, since 2004, the Daily Show has been invited to report on the Democratic and Republican national conventions – firmly cementing its political credentials. Barack Obama appeared just ahead of the 2008 election, presumably understanding that the Daily Show was a prime platform for wooing voters.
He has appeared many times since, even though Stewart offers him no special favours. Obama received quite a grilling in 2012, for example, over the attacks on the US consulate in Libya.
Of course The Daily Show and Stewart are not without their critics. The show has been accused of having a decidedly left-wing bias and some argue that Stewart’s cynical take on politics acts to discourage political engagement from viewers. But either way, it is without question that his merging of the serious and the satirical has made us re-evaluate what constitutes political news.
I am sure I am not alone in saying that Stewart will be sorely missed as The Daily Show’s chief news anchor. But before mourning his departure and questioning his possible replacement we must remember that all is not lost. Without him, we would never have had John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe.
We wouldn’t have seen the biggest names in politics squirm and many questions would have remained unanswered. Stewart has paved the way for other comedians and satirists to challenge the mainstream while making us laugh.