“The Daily Show” returned from a two-week hiatus last Monday to what Jon Stewart called a comedic godsend -- and also a strident attack on the show's credibility and sensibility.
As Stewart and his team arrived back at work, Mitt Romney was refusing to release tax returns pre-dating his presidential candidacy, and suddenly there was disagreement about when he even left Bain Capital. On the Sunday talk-show circuit, a senior adviser claimed Romney "retroactively retired" from Bain in 1999. It was too good for Stewart to pass up.
“In 2012, I realized that the company I was legally CEO of in 1999 did things that would hurt my presidential run in the present, so I retroactively ... wasn’t there,” Stewart quipped. Romney also explained that his investments had been placed in a blind trust during his tenure at Bain, which he said effectively avoided a conflict of interest. Stewart’s response: A 1994 clip of Romney, running against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate, dismissing blind trusts as an “age-old ruse, which is to say, you can always tell a blind trust what it can and cannot do. You give a blind trust rules.”
Stewart didn't stop there. A buzzed-about attack ad by the Obama campaign had just hit Romney on jobs lost or sent overseas after Bain took companies over. Romney claimed he was on a leave of absence at the time. Said Stewart:
I was just the guy with the the smoke screenish, yet still legal title of CEO and Managing Director who was paid at least $100,000 a year to do what, according to me, Mitt Romney, was nothing. That’s the kind of common sense business experience I hope to bring to the White House.
And finally, Stewart used Romney's pretzel logic to issue an attack on the heart of his campaign. “Here’s what Romney doesn’t understand,” Stewart said. “Nobody cares that Romney is rich. It’s Romney’s inability to understand the institutional advantage that he gains from the government’s tax code largesse. That’s a little offensive to people, especially considering Romney’s view on anyone else who looks to the government for things like, I don’t know, food and medicine.” There, in a nutshell, was the defining hypocrisy of right-wing capitalist apologists, of which Romney is now the most visible. It’s not class warfare when rich people play the system.
It was one of the finest televised moments this month. Stewart made his point passionately, incisively, even angrily. In short, it was everything that on a great night makes “The Daily Show” essential viewing for any citizen interested in the political process. The issues had been in the news, but had not been discussed quite so pointedly or constructively. And does any show do a better job of finding video clips that capture political hypocrisy?
But at the same time, Stewart was being called a stooge in the new issue of the Baffler, the often brilliant politics and culture magazine. In an essay called "The Joke's on You," the essayist and novelist Steve Almond (who often writes for Salon) decried both Stewart and Stephen Colbert as weak-kneed puppets of corporate media, as complicit as the Jim Cramers and Bill O’Reillys they seek to satirize. He indicts them for timid commentary and accuses their audiences of couch-potato complacency: “They congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.”
According to Almond, Stewart's "interviews are cozy affairs, promotional vehicles for whatever commodity his guest happens to be pimping." The host is "not interested in visitors who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism." He brings Republicans on the show and "is nothing if not courteous," allowing "each of these con men to speak his piece. He pokes fun at the more obvious lines of bullshit. The audience chortles. Now for a message from our sponsors." And "when Stewart hosts a figure of genuine political power, the discussion usually winds up anodyne."
A passionate and often excitable writer, Almond can be a bold and incisive critic, but also occasionally trollishly provocative, as though tipping sacred cows was an end in itself. He often writes to be disagreed with, it would seem. And this piece is a mess. Almond argues pugilistically, adopting a tone more reminiscent of playground taunts than of high-minded cultural criticism. The essay is oddly cynical and ungenerous, too quick to dismiss its subjects and too unwilling to consider anything positive they might have to offer. Stewart and Colbert are, he writes, “parasites of the dysfunction they mock.” “Their audience [has] gone to lard morally.” What they practice is not “a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source.” In other words, they’re in it for the money that Viacom pays them and the attention their mindless followers provide.
The Romney segment last week serves as a "checkmate" against Almond's tired rehash of the case against Stewart, which publications reliably run every few months as a consistent way to get attention and retweets. In some ways, Almond's argument is vague enough that it's impossible to argue with, mainly because it's also impossible to prove. Some of Stewart's fans are sanctimonious. Sure. So are some fans of Radiohead or the Boston Red Sox or foreign films. That doesn't make the case against the artists or teams themselves. Is there data to support Almond’s assumptions that viewers aren’t politically active?
Are they more or less active than fans of “South Park,” which he extols as an exemplar of cutting political commentary despite its tired libertarian rants in its 16th season? “Why take to the streets when Stewart and Colbert are on the case?” he writes. “It’s a lot easier, and more fun, to experience the war as a passive form of entertainment than as a source of moral distress requiring citizen activism.” In fact, we’re at a point in history where old forms of activism aren’t quite as potent as they once were. For all the efforts of Occupy Wall Street, what specific policies did it change? We’re still figuring that out, but in the meantime, protest is moving online, with Facebook posts and tweets and retweets replacing picket signs for an around-the-clock sit-in. Sure, it’s more passive and less communal, but it’s still in its infancy. It’s still developing as a younger generation decides how it wants to protest or if it sees any use in what we understand as protest.
Instead of constructive criticism, we just get this knee-jerk scorn, such as Almond’s dismissal of Stewart’s 2004 appearance on "Crossfire," on which he famously confronted Tucker Carlson as being part of the problem. “Stewart was hailed as a hero: Here, at last, was a man brave enough to condemn the tyranny of a middling cable shoutfest,” Almond writes. Never mind that Almond himself appeared on the cable shoutfest "Hannity & Colmes" (after resigning his post at Boston College when the school named Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice its commencement speaker). Shows like "Crossfire," no matter how unbalanced or idiotic, do in fact shape the discourse on politics and culture; Almond says as much elsewhere in the essay, but conveniently disregards that idea when he needs to puncture Stewart’s victory as empty and meaningless. He’s grasping at straws.
Just how little credit is Almond willing to give Stewart? One of the weirder aspects of Almond’s essay is his criticism of Stewart’s first “Daily Show” after the 9/11 attacks. He quotes the host explaining that he once could see the twin towers out of his windows. Now they were gone, but he could see the Statue of Liberty, which gave him some comfort. But that story fails to consider, as Almond argues, the true significance of the World Trade Center, which represented “the global reach of U.S.-backed corporate cartels.” He further condemns the show for airing clips that weren’t politically pointed, but openly entertaining. “You got that?” Almond taunts. “In times of national crisis, the proper role of the comedian is not to challenge the prevailing jingoistic hysteria, but to induce smiles.”
You got that? Hindsight has apparently blinded Almond to the confusions and worries of those days following the attacks. Even a decade later — with so much foreign war and domestic animosity in between — it’s difficult to reconstruct the mood of the country in mid- to late September, even for those of us who remember it clearly. “The Daily Show” did eventually address many aspects of that tragedy, from a variety of angles, but Stewart and his writers gauged their audience and decided that following week wasn’t the time to try to “challenge the prevailing jingoistic hysteria,” perhaps because they, like so many of us, were too shocked to recognize it as such, if it even existed at the time.
Almond scores more hits when he moves to Stewart and Colbert’s interviewing strategies. Indeed, neither man is “interested in visitors who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism.” Colbert is lambasted for “trivializing interviews” by doing them with the same in-character irreverence he brings to the news wrap-ups, yet Almond’s description of these exchanges is misleading: “If [his guests] try to match wits with him, they get schooled. If they play it straight, they get steamrolled.” Perhaps I haven’t seen the interviews Almond refers to here, but the ones I’ve watched, whether with political insiders or authors and academics (and let’s take a minute to applaud television programs that actually book authors and academics), tend to be gregarious and fun, as Colbert invites them into his delusion, asking them to play along. Most guests seem game, if only because they know what they’re getting into. And much of the time, the host’s demeanor is self-denigrating, as he mockingly points to his lack of preparation or interest. At their best, these interviews become sly parodies of interviews.
Which is better, though? Self-regard or too much regard for others? Stewart does lob some easy questions at Mike Huckabee, Chris Wallace, Bill Kristol and their ilk, whom Almond regards as the enemy. Stewart is much more generous and even perhaps — shockingly — interested in hearing opposing points of view, which apparently reinforces the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism. Sure, it’s frustrating when Stewart avoids touchy topics, but perhaps there is method to his lack of madness. It can be refreshing to watch a respectful exchange rather than what Almond might call a "middling cable shoutfest." Stewart is trying to outcivilize his opponents, which seems crucial at a time when politics disregards the mere notion of bipartisanship, when “fair and balanced” shows book liberals as easily badgered plants, when birtherism isn’t a theory advanced by fringe nutjobs but adopted by mainstream presidential candidates, when Donald Trump can be considered a mainstream figure. Almond suggests it’s not the time for civility, but there’s something radical about Stewart’s insistence that we can find middle ground. If we can’t, I know that Thanksgiving dinners with the family are about to get insanely tense.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are above reproach. In fact, there is much to criticize about both shows. More often than I’d like, Stewart allows his commentary to bog down in shtick, usually involving a Joisey accent or outbursts of profanity bleeped for us watching at home. With the exception of John Oliver, a Brit whose outsider view of America gives his segments an uncomfortable punch, the “Daily Show” correspondents are a shouty ragtag bunch who favor easy irony and often miss their targets entirely. On the “Report,” Colbert’s fictional persona occasionally eats its tail, such that he unwittingly endorses the very thing he seeks to satirize. Both shows can get too much credit in the press.
At heart, however, these are technical flaws, not conceptual ones. Stewart can always quit mugging and discipline the correspondents; Colbert can find a line between himself and his character. Despite their flaws, both shows do important work, and I’d argue that instead of lulling their audiences, they actually instruct them how to watch the news — how to decode spin, read politicians’ lips, consider unstated implications, and dig beyond the front page for stories that aren’t being reported (such as a recent segment on shameful U.S. cuts to UNESCO funding). They don’t do so as self-righteous scolds or as stuffed shirts; they’re slyer than that, more entertaining. Funnier. We should certainly hold them accountable, as that puts them in a vaunted position, but the criticism should be more smartly targeted. It needs to be more than simply the far left calling out the centrist left. It needs to be about something other than a healing show after an attack on New York. To put it another, needlessly complicated way: Mocking those who mock the media is just as important as actually mocking the media. But in his attempt to suggest we need better mocking of the media, Almond just shows we need better mocking of those who mock those who mock.