I swore to myself that I would not make a blog entry until I had something interesting to write. I look at most blogs about whether people's days were good or sucky, and I think: "It took me 30 seconds to skim this, and that is 30 seconds that I will never get back again."
So I just got done writing another essay, and I thought this might be a good place to test-market it before I publish it on a site that gets more page views (I'm not holding my breath to make it onto the "Cool New People" list). Here it is:
What Do We Learn from Jon Stewart?
While bored at work last week, I happened to find an editorial from the Duke Chronicle about their choice for graduation speaker. The editorial lamented the uninspired choice of speaker – Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. The thesis of the editorial, though, argued how even this most unexciting speaking prospect would still be better than the student body favorite: Jon Stewart.
The core audience of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the illusive and fickle 18-25-year-old demographic who, if you can get them to sit still long enough in front of your commercials, have the potential to buy a lot of shit. This helps explain his pervasive popularity on college campuses. According to this editorial, Stewart is currently one of the most sought-after university speakers in the
His popularity as a comedian and “Fake News Anchor,” in the style of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” has taken on more of a cult following since he appeared on an episode of the CNN political “debate” show Crossfire. At his appearance, he told the anchors – to their faces – that they were partisan hacks, and that their show was not debate, but polemic theatre. That, and he also called Tucker Carlson a dick. The media clip of this airing quickly became one of the most downloaded clips on the Internet. Months later, the show Crossfire was cancelled by CNN, and the President of the network cited Jon Stewart’s comments in his own post-mortem indictment of the show.
This editorial from the Duke Chronicle went on to say that despite Stewart’s popularity and entertainment value, he is a poor choice for a graduation speaker. His comedy, though it passes for low satire, is nothing but complaints and cynicism, and breeds an “educated apathy” in his audience; a sense that it’s more cool to criticize the process than to try and improve it. In his reproach of politics and mainstream media, he takes cheap shots, and his comments are without any constructive value. What’s more, the author contends, Stewart denies his own evolution towards being a primary source of news for his narrow demographic, and the increasing journalistic responsibilities that come with that evolution. Better to have an unexciting speaker from
Is this right? Is Stewart culturally relevant only because he’s popular with a group of people who are young and difficult to engage? Does he contribute nothing else of value? And is it even his responsibility to attempt any contribution of substance? He is, after all, a comedian. And what, if anything, can we learn from a comedian?
I watch Jon Stewart regularly, and I’ve seen him live doing stand-up comedy away from his Daily Show hosting. The first thing you notice about the man is that he is very, very smart. His intelligence pervades both his pre-written comedy and his interviews with guests. His guest panel in not the usual late-night parade of movie stars and celebrities, but has included former Presidents, Presidential candidates, senators, cabinet secretaries, high-profile newspaper and news magazine editors, essayists, academics, and pundits. More than once, I’ve been impressed at his ability to stand toe-to-toe with his more intellectual guests. One almost has to admit that, for a comedy show, his interviews tend to resemble actual debates more often than the interviews on Crossfire ever did.
It’s maybe for this reason that Stewart often gets mistakenly associated with actual journalism. It confuses matters more that The Daily Show has won two
As intelligent as it is, The Daily Show is not particularly highbrow. There’s no mistaking it for Oscar Wilde. The show displays its intelligence in its perceptive accuracy, and not necessarily for its sophistication. One of my favorite examples of this concerns Stewart’s commentary on the Robert Novak / Valerie Plame story. The former had publicized the latter’s identity as a CIA agent for apparent political retribution, and then refused to identify his source. This source, by providing Novak with classified information, was guilty of a criminal offense. For this ethical transgression, Stewart dubbed Novak the “Douchebag of Liberty.” Later, when Novak criticized CBS for not revealing the sources of the faked Bush National Guard memos, Stewart awarded him the first and so-far-only “Congressional Medal of Douchebag.”
Stewart speaks to his audience. His ratings hover consistently at about a million and a half viewers a night, which for a show on basic cable is considered excellent. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor famously characterized Stewart’s viewers as “stoned slackers.” In fact, when I saw Stewart come to
Right about the time O’Reilly made that comment, a current poll showed that Stewart’s viewers were 78 percent more likely than the average adult to be college educated, and new more about election issues than people who got their news from papers or networks. They also, by the by, knew more about current events than the viewers of the O’Reilly factor.
If Stewart’s audience is going to be chided for their apathy, you could argue that the audience was apathetic before Stewart got there. The Duke Chronicle argues that Stewart’s cynical deconstruction of the news encourages apathy – which is to say disengagement from politics and media. The relatively knowledgeable nature of Stewart’s audience seems to suggest they are at least mentally engaged in the process. Whether or not the Chronicle is right in this regard really depends on whether Stewart’s satire implies a better path, or whether he takes shots at politicians and the media simply to score points and bolster his own popularity.
Stewart’s satire says, spin is empty. It says that the mass marketing of politicians and pundits using talking points and sound bites allows would-be leaders to hide behind platitudes and posturing. And it says that the media, supposedly the arbitrator in this marketing frenzy, actually aides the politicians and the corporate spokesmen with talking-point shootouts like Crossfire. This is not a new message, but feels new in Stewart’s hands because his satire is both intelligent and on-point, and also legitimately funny.
Recently, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson called flat-out for the
I go back to the Crossfire incident, as it is probably the most explicitly Stewart has ever spoken this message. Paul Bagala defended Crossfire’s format, calling it a debate show. “No,” Stewart responded, “That would be great. A debate show would be great.” Stewart is an advocate of off-talking-point discussion. You respond to my thoughts, I respond to your thoughts; maybe we can find a little common ground. This is the better path: actual political debate where persuasion takes place, rather than a barrage of catch-phrases designed only to energize those who already agree with you.
Stewart himself had such a discussion the other night with Vanity Fair writer and author Christopher Hitchens, the latter believing that the current administration is correct in its
Stewart prevailed at the end of the exchange by drawing a big red circle around the fallacy in Hitchens’s (and Bush’s) argument: that there are reasonable disagreements about how this war is being executed – regarding transparency and credibility – that have nothing to do with retreating from terrorists. Hitchens could not refute Stewart with pre-planned comebacks or sound bites because those tools are designed only to counter only the most extreme arguments of immediately withdrawing from
The discussions on The Daily Show display depth, even though it’s not necessarily the job of a comedian to lead by example. It’s the job of a comedian to be funny. It’s the job of a satirist – a wittier and more socially relevant comedian – to mock institutional absurdity in order to call attention. When Stewart steps to the plate, he swings for comedy, and very often it goes out of the park and becomes insightful satire. We can learn from satire. Satire contributes constructively, in proportion to how exactly it nails its subject. Valuable satire does not have to be sophisticated. It just has to be right. And funny.
What do we gain from Jon Stewart? He would plead with us to only gain yuks from him. He would tell us to look to others for insight. But Stewart is smart, and writes with prescience, and values intelligent social discussion. So, we gain things from Jon Stewart without his actually intending it.
We gain perspective. With a mainstream media hegemony placing so much focus on hearing both sides of an issue that they manufacture moral equivalency where none exists, The Daily Show revels in reminding us that at least one of the two sides is represented by a Nut-job. Stewart takes an audience that’s disoriented from being rolled around in 24-hour media tidal waves, and reminds us which way is up to the surface. It used to be that the media fulfilled this responsibility, and filtered political spokesman-ship. Now the whole political-media complex needs yet another filter before insight is introduced to the conversation.
In the end, a “fake news” anchor does not need to hold himself to the integrity level that actual journalists must. As Stewart would say, “We make shit up. It’s what we do.” That people are getting their news from The Daily Show as a primary source should not be Stewart’s concern; he is not passing himself off as a real anchorman. It’s not hypocrisy to deprecate bad news media from the point of view of a satirist or even a layman, as long as you’re correct. I can understand how this may raise eyebrows, because we live in a world where celebrities advance political agendas backed only by their fame and status. But mentally substitute fellow satirist Tina Fey from “Weekend Update” making the same comments on Crossfire. I doubt anyone would accuse her of passing herself off as a journalism authority.
It’s an irony when a satirist displays more integrity than the journalists whom he mocks, but this is actually happening. It’s sad when a “fake news” anchor shows more respect for the opinions of his guests than actual cable news anchors. In addition to the informed and insightful re-orientation from Stewart’s comedy, we are actually seeing glimpses of what civil discourse is supposed to look like on news programming…and we see it from a “fake news” show!
When he spoke to the William and Mary graduating class of 2004, Stewart kept his comments clean, cracked a few jokes (about guys from Psi U trying to make bongs out of their hats), told more jokes about the “broken” state of the modern world, and gave simple advice about trying hard. That is what any good graduation speaker does. Oh, and he was entertaining. That is something that few graduation speakers can do. Would the students have taken away more insight and dignity had they instead chosen the President of a developing country to speak? Maybe. Maybe if it was
I would have thought it an honor to have Jon Stewart speak at my graduation. Celebrations of achievement don’t have to be up-tight to appropriately recognize the level of hard work and intellectual growth that culminate in a
 Collins, Andrew. “Down with Jon Stewart.” Editorial. The Chronicle.
 The George Foster Peabody Awards are given annually by the University of Georgia Journalism & Mass Communications department for excellence in the electronic media. The Daily Show won for its Presidential election coverage in 2000 and 2004.
 National Annenberg Election Survey, conducted by the