There was a time when Jon Stewart was among the most trusted people in news. As comical as that statement sounds, it’s exactly what a 2007 Pew Research Center poll found. Stewart, who hosted “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and never purported to be a journalist or news anchor, was nonetheless viewed as the one of the most reliable by a majority of respondents.
Naturally, this said a lot about the political climate. Network news established itself in firm partisan camps. Depending upon which network one watched, there would be a significant difference in the coverage of a story; the similarities would be marginal. Reality was always being recontextualized; objectivity gave way to analysis. In such times, it was refreshing to see an “anchor” so gleeful in his biases, who leaned in to hyperbolic coverage of events. In doing so, Stewart drew more attention to the subtler application of bias used by other networks. He was not objective; but then, he never claimed to be. That, it seems, was the difference.
The 2016 election season, however, was forced to proceed without its comedic news champion. In the process, we found ourselves in an election where real headlines sounded fake, and public perception was that objective coverage was few and far between. The Pew Research Center continues to report falling trust in news media and increased perception of news sources as biased. The systems haven’t changed — indeed, partisan practices seem all the more entrenched — but the opposition lacked Stewart’s calming counterpoint.
Others have tried to fill the gap left by Stewart with middling success. Stewart’s own “Daily Show” successor, Trevor Noah, has seen a sharp decline in viewership. “Colbert Report” successor Larry Wilmore’s show was cancelled midway through election season. In late night, Jimmy Fallon drew ire for his ‘soft’ treatment of Trump, while Seth Meyers incorporates satire into his show only in tiny amounts. If any, the most likely successor is “Daily Show” alum John Oliver, whose “Last Week Tonight” features episode-long rants backed up by extensive fact finding. Oliver is also quite successful at propelling himself into the news. For example, Oliver drew attention to churches abusing tax loopholes by creating his own for-profit church, which itself made headlines. Despite his personality, being on HBO limits his audience, and the weekly format precludes “Last Week Tonight” from following developing stories. While Stewart could track stories from night to night, “Last Week Tonight” does not have that option. As a result, Oliver’s coverage, while admittedly thorough, is much less responsive than Stewart’s was. In short: no one seems able to fully take over the reins of Stewart’s “Daily Show” tenure.
For his part, it’s worth noting that Stewart also called out Democrats when necessary. He was far from even-handed, but what Stewart provided could be called a kind of “inside critique.” Stewart’s sympathies lay firmly with the liberal side, but that also meant he was not afraid to call out Democrats when they failed to live up to ideals. Notably, after the 2014 midterm elections, Stewart seemed gleeful to call out Democratic Senators who stalled Obama’s legislation and were subsequently voted out. His remarks this year have been no less fiery. In one interview, he blamed Trump’s nomination on laxity and hypocrisy within the Democratic Party.
This is the kind of honest self-assessment that the Democratic Party could have used this year. The Democratic Party has been far from unified this cycle. After a seriously contested primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, many Sanders supporters were turned off of the party. During the Democratic National Convention, Sanders’ delegates booed Clinton and even progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom they perceived as a “sell-out” for endorsing Clinton. Leaked DNC emails also revealed that former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz pulled strongly for Clinton, with some staffers openly deriding Sanders. These are the kind of tactics to which Stewart frequently drew attention. While they certainly haven’t gone unnoticed, there was an evenhandedness to Stewart’s coverage that may have penetrated deeper into the consciousness of wary Democrats. With so much complaint about the so-called “echo chamber” of politics, Stewart seemed to be able to speak his piece without being filtered out.
Comedic commentary was all the more necessary given how truly absurd this election cycle was. I’m certainly not the first to call it totally farcical. From the primaries, this election has been about gaffes and attacks far more than substantive policy. It may not be anything new, but it is certainly to an unprecedented degree. Jeb Bush dropped out after debates during which Donald Trump mocked his weight and his wife. Lincoln Chafee further doomed his campaign by announcing his intention to switch the U.S. to the metric system. Both major party candidates name-dropped Pokemon GO in an attempt to win over millennials. Doesn’t this all seem like a long, drawn-out joke?
That seems to be the very consensus that writers of comedy, and political comedy in particular, are promoting. Armando Iannucci, writer and showrunner of the hit HBO series “Veep,” says that Trump’s campaign is more absurd than anything his staff could write. The same sentiment crops up in interviews with SNL writers and cast members.
Our political reality has become comedic. Gaffe-driven media coverage supersedes actual discussion of the issues. Debates are categorized as “wins” or “losses” instead of rational consideration of alternatives. Politics is marketed like entertainment — just look at the media circus around the Republican primary debates, in which insults dominated headlines and policy took a backseat.
If politics has become a joke, it’s the media who is telling it. And the punchline is that we are all listening intently.
The media landscape is not the only factor in elections, but it is a crucial factor. Already some are noting that Donald Trump had benefitted from extensive coverage by news networks — so called “earned media” in contrast with paid media. Traditional news media has to own up to its role in the electoral process and rise to meet the new challenges. Stewart certainly could not have single handedly transformed the news media this election cycle. Indeed, he may not have impacted the traditional media at all, even at his height of popularity. But he offered a voice of dissent — a voice of critique — that is necessary to our continued dialogue about politics.
The media is always evolving in order to satisfy the demands of their viewers, as well as to meet technological changes, a process that’s been accelerated by the Internet. As such, there is no shortage of voices and commentators that have weighed in on this election. But with the proliferation of all these voices, there has been a corresponding fragmentation of the audience. And as audiences divide, networks increasingly must cater to a specific ideological base. At times like these, it’s difficult not to be nostalgic for less divided elections. It is times like these when I miss Jon Stewart the most. Amid all the chaos and nonsense, Stewart’s voice rang out with equal parts clarity and comedy. That, unfortunately, has been sorely lacking in this election cycle.