Inevitable Jon Stewart backlash

Published October 25, 2004 10:20PM (EDT)

It's eight days till the election and the media has whipped itself into such a frenzy of cannibalistic blood lust that we have completely reversed the effects of our Paxil prescriptions and are charging blindly after anyone we can sink our teeth into.

Case in point: Jon Stewart.

We have had weeks of unrelenting, masturbatory press congratulating "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart for being the most trusted man in journalism. He's been deified in Newsweek, canonized in Rolling Stone, and his new volume, "America: The Book," is at the top of bestseller lists. Journalists and wisecracking couch-monkeys alike fantasize that he is just the kind of dry, observant political commentator they would be if they were good-looking and had their own show. By early October, the story that Jon Stewart was Aristophanes reborn -- by way of Edward R. Murrow's gene pool -- was about as revelatory as the news that bloggers were a major journalistic force on the election landscape.

But the moody chasm between early October and late October is vast. And in late October, the media is exhausted, frustrated, scared and eager to lash out. Conveniently, they also happen to be shocked, shocked by Stewart's dead-serious scolding of "Crossfire" hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala last Friday. And so they have turned.

"Has Jon Stewart jumped the shark?" Tina Brown asked on last night's episode of "Topic A." Brown's plummy query sounded downright cheerful, though that might have been her relief at having finished an interview with anal sex memoirist Toni Bentley, which Brown had concluded by darkly predicting that Bentley would "meet some very interesting new friends after writing this book." Brown was practically licking her lips as she played a clip of Stewart on "Crossfire" and asked her panel of media experts, "Is he taking himself a bit too seriously?"

New York Times reporter David Carr thrashed Stewart in response, cracking that he would have been better dressed for his "Crossfire" appearance had he shown up in a nun's habit. "His decision to go church lady start to finish, absent any sort of levity and humor ... was a little hard to figure out and probably not good in the end for his own personal franchise," said Carr.

A Sunday New York Times "Week in Review" story by Damien Cave led with the question, "Is Jon Stewart being coy?" and quoted the Boston Pheonix's Dan Kennedy, a Stewart fan who has criticized the "Crossfire" appearance. On Oct. 19, Kennedy wrote that Stewart "came off as something of a bully and a bore" as well as "slippery and disingenuous." Kennedy also argued that in the confrontation, "Stewart became what he criticized."

In Saturday's Washington Post, Howard Kurtz quoted Wonkette  aka Ana Marie Cox -- saying that Stewart had painted a target on his own chest, and that "The Jon Stewart backlash should start right about now." "To say his is just a comedy show is a cop-out in a way," Cox told Kurtz. "He's gotten so much power."

But in case you weren't sure that Cox's predicted backlash was upon us as of this weekend, we woke up this morning to a damning piece in the new issue of New York magazine. "The notion of Stewart as the Joker Who Speaks Truth to Power has now gotten away from the joker himself. His cult success on Comedy Central has become bloated and excessively esteemed," wrote Ken Tucker, going on to argue that Stewart's postmortem rehash of the "Crossfire" fight on his own show was just "nyah-nyah, can't catch-me baiting." Tucker writes that Stewart "tries so hard to be the anti-anchorman that he ends up being a disdainfully mediocre one, tossing verbal Twinkies and Ho Hos at everyone from John Kerry to Ralph Reed, ending up with sugary, jittery segments." Tucker also writes that Stewart "has developed this bad habit of wanting it both ways: Hey, I just tell jokes! and You can't handle the truth!"

Everyone has a point, and it seems that everyone -- including War Room -- has a blog, or a column or a guest spot on a talk show.

But maybe we should all just ratchet back the blood lust, rechannel the aggression. I strongly doubt that Stewart -- a man whose show I do not regularly watch because I do not have real cable -- ever asked to become the biggest story of this election season. He has seemed fairly content to host his show, publish books and nurture a comparatively literate fan base by squeezing this blood-chilling political climate for all the laughs the rest of us are too ethically bound to milk.

It's been his fans -- or at least his ideological fellow travelers, the culturally privileged and socially alienated media -- who have hoisted him into the stratosphere of political commentary, where he apparently now makes a fat, juicy goose at which to aim our shotguns. New York's Tucker admits to agreeing with Stewart's politics; the Pheonix's Kennedy to being a devoted fan. And yet they just can't help themselves.

None of us can. We are all jittery and bloated ourselves, overfed on coverage, statistics, polls, trends, heroes, villains, conspiracies, lies and anger. We have overfeasted on our own cleverness, on our own ability to gather information and process it instantly. We are sick of ourselves and sick with worry about what will happen next week. We can barely stomach the idea of the eight more days -- or God knows how long -- to come before we know who the next president will be. And so, wandering aimlessly, crazily looking for any piece of fresh meat to rip from the bone, the addled, self-loathing media have caught our own tail and are dumbly gnawing on it.

So let's just breathe in and breathe out. Drink a cool glass of water and maybe throw back a stiff drink. Head home early and get a good night's sleep. We are a week away from this thing. Jon Stewart is no one's enemy any more than he was anyone's savior: He is a funny guy with a funny show who happens to be a smart guy who had a smart point to make on a not-funny show. I think that most politically interested people -- including that "dick" Tucker Carlson, who has admitted as much -- have enjoyed a few belly laughs thanks to Jon Stewart. That doesn't make him Walter Cronkite; but it doesn't make him Jayson Blair either.

So let's chill out a bit before we condemn our only decent jester to death.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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