Thursday, August 6, 2015

We'll miss you, Jon Stewart

At this point, the internet is probably saturated with Jon Stewart tributes, and so my first thought as I embark on this post is that you probably don't need another one. Still, as a long-time fan of Jon's, I couldn't let the occasion pass without paying tribute to one of my favorite comedians and one of the sharpest media critics of the century.

I've watched The Daily Show since before there was a Jon Stewart behind the host's desk. I vividly recall debating with my freshman roommate if the show could survive the loss of the comedic wit of Craig Kilborn. (For the record, I was pulling for Jon, he was convinced that Stewart would be a pale imitation.) It took about a year for Jon to really begin turning the show into what it would become. When Kilborn ran it, it was focused more on celebrity news and strange local weirdos who would become the butt of the jokes in remote pieces. The show was far less interested in politics and didn't aspire at all to be a media critic.

The 2000 Presidential campaign set the stage for TDS's practice of puncturing the pundits and their role in packaging the campaigns. Mo Rocca, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert were sent on assignment in TDS branded trenchcoats and crashed a McCain press conference to ask him hard questions taken from Trival Pursuit cards. Two things stick with me about that field report - my disbelief that they could get away with being that irreverent during a supposedly serious campaign, and that McCain was savvy enough to play along with them in good humor.

(Moments like that were part of what made it feel like such a betrayal in 2008 when McCain decided he needed to appease the psychopath wing of the GOP and seemed incapable of those spontaneous moments of humanity, instead sticking to fear-mongering talking points.)

It was stunts like that that helped make politics feel relevant to college students like me. Bob Dole got it, and served for an election or two as an election analyst for The Daily Show. Contrary to Fox News's Bill O'Reilly's assertion that Jon's audience is made up of "stoners," studies have shown that viewers of The Daily Show are among those most informed about current events.

I don't think it's necessarily true that TDS viewers get ALL their news from Stewart, but that it's likely viewers of the show feel compelled to seek out more information. Jon is a gateway drug in that sense. I certainly know that many times one of their pieces led me to google the topic of a story, though I confess it was often out of a motivation like, "Louis Gohmert can't have ACTUALLY said that, can he? How does this jackass get elected?!"

Another Stewart trademark is the practice of taking a public figure or pundit's statement on something, and then digging back to find them staking out the opposite position on the same or similar issue. For instance, during Bush's tenure in office, Fox News often scoffed at anti-war protestors, essentially calling it treasonous not to fall in line with the President during a time of war. You know how this works, once a Democrat was elected, those same voices were the loudest calling for open dissent.

It seems like it shouldn't be revolutionary, but it felt that way. For too long, the media never called out a politician on blatant hypocrisy like that. Part of that might be that Stewart rose up just as our culture had multiple 24 hour news channels with a lot of time to fill. Such a setting afforded pundits and public figures plenty of opportunity to hang themselves with their own words. It also didn't hurt that DVR technology made it exceptionally easy to archive these broadcasts, so it's not as if Stewart's writers needed access to CNN's archives when they had to compile a montage of Wolf Blitzer's biggest gaffes. It's still amazing how easy it is to catch people contradicting themselves. You want to shake some of these guys and say, "You know you're being filmed, right?"

For many of us suffering as neo-conservativism threatened to impede any progress in this country, Jon Stewart was comfort food. He was that voice in the darkness letting us we weren't alone here in this asylum, reassuring us that we had not lost our minds. Through comedy, he demonstrated that Fox News was a flat-out evil media organization that distorted the narrative beyond all recognition in service of some truly deplorable agendas. Do you know how skilled one must be as a comedian to expose how dangerously ill-informed at least half the country is by some really scary people in power - and to still draw laughs from that horror?

And contrary to conservative opinion, he took plenty of shots at Obama. It's not his fault that the Bush Administration gave him a lot more to work with, though. Jon's targets were hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty, two traits that neither political party is a stranger too, even if one party currently seems to trade in it more heavily than the other.

And yet beneath all of that, it always felt like the priority was to make his audience laugh. Some of his critics feel that it's somehow inappropriate for comedy to contain any elements of social satire. The instant their beliefs became the target of the joke, they cried that it was unfair for Jon to claim he was a comedian when he was clearly some kind of propagandist. It's kind of sad that most of Jon's critics were more willing to debate whether or not Jon was a comedian or a shill than they were to address any of the points or charges Jon would make in one piece or another.

A poll called Jon Stewart "America's Most Trusted Journalist" for a reason. He was the straight-shooter who never failed to back up his attacks with video evidence. It seems unfair that he leaves the arena while human bile Rush Limbaugh continues to spew garbage like blaming declining teenage sex on the acceptance of homosexuals. I'll miss my daily antidote to the latest lunacy from Donald Trump and the NRA, but after 15 years of daily exposure to the ugly side of politics, you can't say Jon hasn't earned his own respite from those horrors.

Come back anytime, Jon. You know you'll always be welcome.

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