behind the news

Why the media will miss Jon Stewart

The fake newsman gave viewers what many legacy outlets could not
February 11, 2015

AP422497569758.jpg Rosewater Jon Stewart poses for a portrait to promote his directorial debut, Rosewater in November 2014. (AP Photo/Victoria Will)

I was a sophomore at Northwestern University in 2010 when The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart had announced a rally in Washington, DC, against the constant stream of outrage and fear-mongering peddled by the nation’s gray-haired political-media complex. A few friends and I made the decision on a whim: We’d drive the roughly 1,400-mile round trip in the space of one weekend, all to see a comedian repeat what he did four nights a week, and without the front-row seats television affords. 

The aptly titled Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear brought an estimated 215,000 people to the National Mall — the crescendoing shouting matches on cable channels and in Congress had annoyed more than just a few Busch Light-guzzling college kids outside of Chicago. The comedian’s speech that day, which chided the antagonism inherent to contemporary political discourse, didn’t surprise faithful viewers. But the amount of interest it garnered from the far corners of the country only confirmed his critique of the way things are. 

Jon Stewart doesn’t report the same way former Daily Show disciple John Oliver has since pioneered on HBO, nor does he spoof a contending worldview like fellow protégé Stephen Colbert. Stewart, rather, relies on viewing prevailing media narratives through an opposing lens, especially when it comes to politics. He skewers storylines pushed by mainstream outlets. And while obviously liberal, Stewart is similar to most Americans in that his take on the day’s news doesn’t neatly fit into either partisan camp. His departure from the program this year, which he announced on air Tuesday night, will deprive American news consumers of that representative voice, the closest thing to a unified ombudsman that currently exists. 

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.45.42 AM.png Stewart’s arguments come from outside of the media’s minute-by-minute echo chamber. And he draws more engaged viewers because of it: A number of surveys over the last decade have found Daily Show viewers to have greater knowledge of current events than those who turn to many other straightlaced news sources. More important, his broadcasts are relatable and entertaining enough to draw in young viewers who might otherwise be turned off by political news. Stewart’s show has routinely drawn between 1 million and 2 million viewers since its inception in 1999. And as of 2012, 39 percent of its audience was between 18 and 29 years old, second only to the spinoff Colbert Report among major media outlets and programs. Less than 10 percent of network news audiences fit into that age cohort, while CNN led the cable pack with just 21 percent.

I’m of a generation that grew up with Stewart’s Daily Show, one that appreciates both a well-timed dick joke and in-your-face logic. The rigid presentation of traditional TV news feels dated and outlandish to us, and our ranks will only swell as more children grow up with the internet. Out-of-touch hosts with partisan blinders, meanwhile, often preach as if they live in a parallel universe.

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This isn’t to say broadcast journalists are unusually inept or Machiavellian, but rather that the medium, business model, and present-day political environment create a mixture that comes off to young people as particularly toxic and unbelievable. Stewart is a master of capturing this disconnect, and he’s provided fodder for billions of laughs in the process.

Regardless of who replaces him behind the Daily Show’s faux-anchor desk, it’s hard to fathom that he or she will be able to tap into that widespread sense of frustration, especially among younger generations. His self-deprecating demeanor and comedic chops not only allow him to denounce politicians’ bravado and media’s voice-of-god proclamations, but also distance himself from both camps. HBO’s Oliver and Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore practice different forms of satire, and they will only partly fill the void left in Stewart’s wake.

It’s somewhat fitting that the twilight of Stewart’s career will come as Barack Obama’s presidency winds down. His administration has presided over a boom in the outrage economy, due both to his political divisiveness and massive changes in the media landscape. Contentious political speech has flourished over the Obama years, especially on cable. And during this time Stewart’s stature as a media critic — to say nothing of his political star — has likewise risen.

Perhaps that’s not what the comedian set out to do when he took over The Daily Show 16 years ago. But it has very often been the antidote that a disjointed news media and its agitated audience today require. Stewart injects reason into arguments in which reason is so obviously lacking. Though he hasn’t succeeded in his effort restore sanity, he’s at least made many of us question how to measure it.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.