Jon Stewart made sense of the insanity all around us

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David Remnick has a nice ode to Jon Stewart in the New Yorker this week, in which he correctly identifies the comedian as the best press critic we’ve had since A.J. Liebling. But that understates Stewart’s achievement. Over 17 years, the nice Jewish boy from New Jersey became the most interesting journalist on television. Particularly for war news—and it’s astonishing how dominant that category became during his tenure—he was more thorough and more serious than just about everyone on CBS or NBC or even the PBS NewsHour. And if you are of the view that the American government’s use of torture is among the most critical issues of our time, you learned more that was important on the Daily Show than you did in many newspapers.

To understand Stewart’s importance, you have to go back to the time when most of the mainstream media (especially broadcasters) were doing little or nothing to restrain George Bush’s rush to war, while Stewart was the constant skeptic. The full arc of his war coverage goes from an early Daily Show Iraq segment in 2003 (Where are we on this? “Ted Kennedy is the voice of reason and Germany doesn’t want to go to war”) to his evisceration last spring of Jeb Bush for at first coming out strongly in favor of his brother’s Iraq invasion (to Megyn Kelly) and then sort of coming out against it to Sean Hannity. And Stewart did his best to close the circle on Iraq’s invented WMD’s in his recent confrontation with Judy Miller when her self-serving tome about Iraq appeared.

For aging news junkies like myself, who began their broadcast news addiction with the Huntley-Brinkley Report and That Was the Week that Was (an actual Daily Show ancestor) Stewart gradually rose to the level of Walter Cronkite as the most reliable voice of seriousness on the major issues of the day. If you watched Comedy Central four times a week, you learned more that mattered than you ever could from the straight network news shows.

There are two main reasons for the deterioration of political discourse in our time. The first one is the steady proliferation of genuine fools, on Fox and the other networks, where anchors, reporters and guests alike assault us with mindless observations on every subject preoccupying our over-heating planet. In an earlier, simpler time, when Roger Ailes still ruled the Mike Douglas show, these network lightweights were unable to broadcast their opinions beyond their own dinner tables.

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The other problem is that network news executives hardly hide that their main function has shifted to entertainment. There are still occasional nights on the CBS Evening News when serious people like Elizabeth Palmer do serious work from Syria and elsewhere. But most of the time is gobbled up by the weather, and people like Major Garrett—a correspondent with a name and a personality that would have been over-the-top on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, over at ABC, the evening anchor desk is now helmed by a young man whose “world news” would make Mary Tyler Moore character Ted Baxter blush.

In this environment—an asylum where the inmates have taken almost absolute control of the proceedings—only a comedian with Stewart’s talents can make sense of the insanity all around us.

When Obama entered the White House, there was much speculation that Stewart, with his progressive instincts, would lose his edge amid Democratic power. But this ignored one of his best qualities—his insistence that his own side live up to its principles. That was visible right up to the end, in his final interview with Obama last month. Stewart was especially tough on the continuing failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs, asking why the backlog of cases was going up again. And back in 2013, he tore into Obama when he began to present arguments for new American military intervention in Syria

Most people have forgotten that Stewart’s roster of correspondents originally failed to reflect any commitment to diversity. More than a decade ago, Stewart was invited to a publisher’s lunch at the New York Times. He was startled when Arthur Sulzberger Jr. asked him why all of his correspondents were white men. A Timesman at the lunch who told me of the conversation was obviously discomfitted by his publisher’s presumption. But within a year or two the show had added white women and black men and East Asians and black women to its air, and it became smarter, broader and funnier than before.

I’m optimistic that Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah will find ways to fill part of the void created by Stewart’s departure—as Daily Show alum John Oliver already does on HBO. But it’s hard to imagine anyone puncturing all of the inflated egoes of the political-journalism complex as comprehensively as Stewart did. Only Megyn Kelly and her ilk will breathe a sigh of relief when he’s gone.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.