The day Jon Stewart quit: Why "The Daily Show" isn't the satire America needs

There was once a time when "The Daily Show" was truly groundbreaking. That isn't the case anymore

Published October 18, 2014 2:30PM (EDT)

Jon Stewart           (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jon Stewart (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Excerpted from "Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will."

The first comic Jamie ever saw live before deciding to dedicate his life to stand-up comedy was Jon Stewart at Carnegie Hall. Actually, that’s not true. His first stand-up show was "The Amazing Johnathan" at the Stress Factory. But which sounds more romantic? Honestly? Political satirist at the most prestigious venue in Manhattan, or the yelling prop magician in New Brunswick, New Jersey?

He still remembers the show fondly. Watching Jon pace the stage with a tiny microphone talking politics while saying the F-word in a place designed for the most beautiful music in the world. There was still hope.

newsfailSee, there was a time in America when Jon Stewart, the host of "The Daily Show," was for many Americans the most trusted name in news. Not the most trusted name in comedy, but news.

That time has passed.

More than fifteen years after its debut on a network whose name should have given us a clue to the show’s true allegiance, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (which premiered in 1999 after giving Craig Kilborn the old heave-ho as the original "Daily Show" host) has gone from an invaluable bullshit detector on a government waging unjust wars on a mad hunt for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, to, at best, an armchair activist’s watercooler conversation starter (“Hey, did you hear what Jon Stewart said last night?” “Yeah, I feel like I know everything there is to know about the Middle East now. Want to hit up the falafel cart for lunch?”) and at worst, a “news” program that’s as guilty of cheerleading some of President Obama’s worst offenses as Fox “News” was of rooting for Dubya’s never-ending wars.

For eight years (1999–2007), "The Daily Show" served as a platform for the underdog: the marginalized, the voiceless, the stunned citizens watching their country march off to invade a country that never attacked the United States. Sure, America didn’t have a Walter Cronkite for the twenty-first century, but at least they had a comedy show that could occasionally fill in for the role of decent journalism. With Jon Stewart at the helm, "The Daily Show" skewered the government and President Bush with vicious satire at a time when no establishment media outlet was making a serious effort to hold the powerful and elite accountable.

"The Daily Show" has always been at its best when it performs the role of archivist—that is, comparing what a politician says today with what he or she said last month. That’s technically what a good journalist is supposed to do—call powerful people out when they lie or pander by saying, “No, no, but see . . . this is what you used to believe. Why the change?”

Through the early 2000s, "The Daily Show" and its host were truly counterculture. So it makes sense that during the Bush administration, which featured #newsfail ranging from the infamous WMDs that never existed to the original fuckup that gave us Dubya (the Florida recount) to the establishment media framing massive tax cuts for the rich as a way to “create jobs,” liberals turned Jon Stewart into their messiah. Unfortunately, that trust was misguided. No single news program, network, or individual— let alone a man who has consistently attempted to point out that he is a comedian, not a journalist or newsman or revolutionary— should be burdened with leading a cultural revolution.

That was never Jon Stewart’s role. And he knew it. America just didn’t want to listen, and we had nowhere else to turn.

The Cure for Crappy Media Is Not More Crappy Media

You might wonder how a comedy show became the most trusted name in news. Well, if you turned on Fox News in 2008 you might have heard that Barack Obama was a Muslim, then an hour later that he’s a Nazi, then at eight o’clock, BREAKING: America Has Its First MUSLIM‐NAZI President.

The next morning, the weather guy might have whispered, just before commercial break, that they were misinformed about the “Muslim-Nazi” thing, but we should all still keep our eyes peeled, just to be safe. This kind of thing is par for the course on a network created by a lunatic Australian trying to become the king of media.

Of the major networks, CNN and MSNBC are slightly better, only because they at least try to hide their bullshit by occasionally inviting a person of color on their panels, and aren’t so cartoonish about peddling their propaganda. However, these networks all still court the same advertisers, and largely the same agenda where war is a force for peace, capitalism is king, and the poor are invisible.

Fox News just has more ads for gold, which makes some sense, we admit, since poor people can’t afford gold.

It’s highly problematic, for example, when America’s lovable doctor Sanjay Gupta goes on CNN and says inaccurate things about Michael Moore’s "Sicko." Gupta accused Moore of fudging the facts when critiquing the US health care system. Gupta’s big “gotcha” moment was when he pointed out the World Health Organization ranks Cuba’s health care system lower than the United States, a fact the filmmaker actually shows in his film.

Gupta then accused Moore of reporting inaccurately that the American health care system spends $7,000 per person on health, whereas Cuba spends $25 per person. Gupta said this is untrue and the United States actually spends $6,096 a year per person versus $229 a year in Cuba.

But according to the Department of Health & Human Services, Moore’s figures are closer to correct than Gupta’s. US per capita health care spending was projected to reach $7,092 in 2006, and $7,498 in 2007, the year "Sicko" was released.

Additionally, Moore said Cuba spent $251 per person, not $25, as Gupta claimed.

Gupta tried to argue the projected numbers were somehow invalid, but in the same discussion, cited another projection— Medicare’s looming insolvency—as a reason not to support expanding the program.

The good doctor then went on to accuse "Sicko" of being misleading about the different kinds of health care afforded to citizens. The film is filled with content Canadians and Brits sitting in waiting rooms, confident care will come. In Canada, you can be waiting for a long time. A survey of six industrialized nations found that only Canada was worse than the United States when it came to waiting for a doctor’s appointment for a medical problem.

But as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) points out, this is a grossly misleading characterization of the Commonwealth Fund’s comparative study of first-world health care systems. Instead of stressing that the study found that the United States did better than one country with universal care in terms of waiting time, Gupta could have instead focused on the fact that four out of five of the universal health care countries studied, including Britain, outperformed the United States.

The study Gupta cited actually placed the United States as the worst overall of all the health care systems studied, placing it last or next to last in all but one of eight criteria, while the United States spends almost twice as much per capita as the next more expensive system.

This was truly cherry-picking journalism at its worst, but people watching think: Well, he’s a doctor, for God’s sake! Why wouldn’t he want me healthy?! Sanjay wouldn’t lie! He loves me! Michael Moore is the partisan! This is the most trusted name in news! But by the time the retraction comes, it’s too late.

Just ask the Iraqis.

NBC’s "Meet the Press" let Dick Cheney on air to reference a story given to the New York Times by an anonymous figure within the administration, and the former vice president used that platform to lead us to war. That’s like a prank an especially evil Zack Morris would pull on Mr. Belding, not something that should happen on one of the most “respected” news shows in the world! Then there is the liberals’ beloved MSNBC.

Turn on MSNBC, that socialist bastion of lesbian propaganda, and you see Chuck Todd talking about the importance of bipartisanship, sandwiched in between his trusty segment about— seriously—the White House soup of the day (I HOPE IT’S SPLIT PEAS!), Michael Steele being taken seriously for some reason, three to thirty-five hours of Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews gushing over George W. Bush’s package in a flight suit, and more.

Hurray! Liberals!

Look, it’s okay for a station to have voices like that, balanced by Rachel Maddow, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Chris Hayes, but (and here’s where a thing called “false equivalency” comes in) not when you are known as the left-wing version of Fox News.

False equivalency is when someone falsely equates an act or idea of one thing as being equally egregious to that of another thing when that comparison isn’t actually fair or valid.

See, viewers naturally assume, based on false equivalency, that if Fox News is as right-wing as it gets, MSNBC is as left-wing as it gets, and consequently that their programming is as extreme as that of Fox News (which it is not, hence a “false” equivalency).

Oftentimes, MSNBC actually peddles the mainstream Democratic Party platforms, thereby alienating many leftists who are dissatisfied with Democratic leadership. They think: Gee, if I don’t have a home on the so‐called left‐of‐left MSNBC, where do I belong?

This is where "The Daily Show" came in.

It was a false liberal ascription that befell Jon Stewart’s “newsroom” and turned it from a comedy show on a corporate television station that was very funny and provided an entertaining reprieve from life’s suckage into a show that routinely expressed outright contempt for actual counterculture activities and yet has also been called “the most trusted name in news.” (See, we promised we’d tell you how it happened.)

Less cartoonishly strident than Fox, but more critical of the left than MSNBC, this equal-opportunity comedy show takes potshots at all comers and therefore . . . they must be the actual news!

Turns out, that is not only inaccurate, but just as dangerous as giving the fire-breathing terror-mongers over at Fox News the title of “fair and balanced.”

(“I’m a comedian first,” Stewart once said in an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “My comedy is informed by an ideological background, there’s no question about that. But . . . I’m not an activist. I am a comedian.”)

For many young liberals, new to the political system and in many cases just coming into their right to vote, "The Daily Show" began to fill their outrage quota of the day, right after your roommate eating the last of the Corn Pops and leaving empty beer cans in the sink. It’s fun and easy to watch a TV show and then feel no need to take further action.

Why protest the war?! Jon took care of that on Tuesday!

That’s not Jon’s fault. But the Rally to Restore Sanity was.

The Rally to Restore Sanity: Caring Is Uncool and Superlame

On August 28, 2010, Glenn Beck, still at that time a ratings rainmaker in the Fox News empire, held a “Restoring Honor” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr., once delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The original purpose of this rally was to promote Beck’s new book "The Plan," but then he decreed that the rally “would not be political,” but rather would be a “celebration of America’s heroes and heritage.”

Many civil rights leaders of the black community criticized Beck for picking the anniversary of King’s speech to hold the rally. Rev. Carlton W. Veazy, minister in the National Baptist Convention and former president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, accused Beck of “hijacking” King’s legacy.

So obviously that rally was really weird and crazy, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert mocked it for being weird and crazy (Stewart dubbed it the “I Have a Scheme” rally, which we still find amusing), then decided to have their own party. At first this seemed like really great news. Sometimes it takes a comedy show, or a music scene, to rally young people, and word was that tens of thousands of kids from all over the country were flying in just to participate in the event.

But soon it became clear that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear—Fear being Colbert’s contribution—was entirely an exercise in satire and not at all an exercise in activism. In fact, it appeared to have been solely created to draw a false equivalency between grassroots efforts on the left to combat corporate greed and corruption and the Dick Armey–funded Astroturf campaign called the Tea Party.

The following message was posted on "The Daily Show’s" official Rally to Restore Sanity’s Facebook invite:

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Who among us has not wanted to open their window and shout that at the top of their lungs?

Seriously, who?

Because we’re looking for those people. We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

Under the motto “Take it down a notch for America,” and in the spirit of similar orations like JFK’s famous “Meh” speech, hundreds of thousands of individuals converged on Washington, DC, protesters carried signs pleading for “sanity” in political discourse, and many aimed that critique at Glenn Beck-esque figures who frequently engage in rhetorical hyperbole by derailing conversations while screaming “NAZI!!” at their political opponents.

Unfortunately, since that false equivalency between the left and right was drawn from the genesis of the rally, the Stewart/Colbert critique also seemed to say that any passion for reform whatsoever, no matter how grounded in reality, is uncalled for. That it’s never okay to shout, even if that shouting has something to do with holding people accountable for murdering innocent Iraqi children. Also, it’s uncool.

And if it’s just a happy fun-time variety hour on “Comedy” Central, that’s one thing. The authors, as dedicated activists and lovers of comedy, understand Stewart’s comedic prerogative even if we don’t always agree with it. But, despite his protestations to the con- trary, Stewart has to know that a late-night show watched by millions of Americans per week, and constantly lauded as “the most trusted name in news” maybe, just maybe, has some responsibility not to make a total mockery of the democratic process when given a platform for encouraging real grassroots involvement on the scale that his rally attracted.

Or does he?

Rachel Maddow asked Stewart about the rally’s false equivalency during an interview on MSNBC:

On the issue of the perception of the rally in media . . . Bill Maher’s criticism of it was this. He said, “When Jon announced his rally, he said that the national conversation is dominated by people on the right who believe Obama is a socialist and people on the left who believe 9/11 was an inside job. But I can’t name any Democrat leaders who think 9/11 was an inside job.”

Stewart responded:

The intention is to say that we’ve all bought into—the conflict in this country is left and right, liberal/conservative, red/blue. All the news networks have been [sic] bought into that. . . . And what it does is it amplifies a division that I actually don’t think is the right fight. . . . But what I do believe is: both sides have their way of shutting down debate. And the news networks have allowed these two sides to become the fight in the country. I think the fight in the country is corruption versus not corruption, extremists versus regular. Do you understand what I’m saying?

Hmmm. No, we don’t. Is Jon Stewart saying choices are hard? That taking a stand is lame?

That “division” he dismisses is literally the only fight that matters—it’s between the people who think corporations should be allowed to bleed the country dry, and those fighting for Wall Street reform. It’s between those who don’t believe in waging war based on a lie and those who seek military hegemony over the Middle East. The “division” is the whole reason we have political choice—or the illusion of it. We’re supposed to fight in a democracy! We’re supposed to be loud and boisterous and occasionally hurt each other’s feelings.

Otherwise, what you have is a bunch of milquetoast puppets agreeing with the supreme leader all the time, a.k.a. a dictatorship. Stewart appears to be aware of this fact, alluding to a fight between “corruption” and “not corruption,” but apparently he wants that fight to take place someplace far away, preferably in quiet voices, and God forbid anyone carries any aggressively worded signs.

Again, it’s not Jon Stewart’s fault that our media has labeled his show this way. But when story after story comes out saying college students get their news from "The Daily Show," and at the same time, over at Fox News and in the mainstream discourse we hear about just how left-wing "The Daily Show" is, it sets a dangerous precedent. If I’m someone who is new to politics, and I hear the allegedly radical-left Stewart & Co. start to bash activists, I’m going to think, Well, if even "The Daily Show" is making fun of them, maybe they are going too far.

When they made the journey to Washington, "The Daily Show" disciples were clearly searching for something. Maybe it was community, maybe it was a road trip just to get out of their hometown for a few days. But what they got was a lesson in apathy with a sound track from (why, God, why?) Kid Rock.

Rock performed his song “Care,” which could serve as a manifesto for the disempowered:

I can’t stop the war
shelter homeless, feed the poor. . . .
I can’t change the world and make things fair. The least that I can do is care.

What the hell does that even mean? On second thought, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Yes, Kid, the very least you can do is care.

Jon Stewart and Comedy Central brought 200,000 kids together, many who made their first journey to Washington, attended their first political event, who maybe even for the first time met people of the same political leaning, who met other gay kids, other artists, other students drowning in debt, and they got Kid Fucking Rock to sing about NOT doing anything?!

This might be where "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" officially abdicated its Most Trusted title, spending all of its hard-earned capital on what could have been a truly inspiring, energizing event honoring participants in the great American institution of democracy but instead became one bloated, crass exercise in satire-for-ratings. We guess this is how some people felt about Seth MacFarlane hosting the Oscars.

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was like if Martin Luther King graced those stairs and said, “I had a dream, but it’s not really important to talk about right now. Just know that bad things are happening to black people, but I guess bad things always happen, so never mind. We can’t change anything. Hey, at least we aren’t slaves anymore! Am I right?! NO CHANTING!”

"The Daily Show" Exposes History’s Greatest Monsters: Wall Street Protesters

In September 2011, the world felt like it divided into two versions of reality. There was the reality on the ground at Zuccotti Park and then the “reality” presented in the mainstream media.

Allison spent a lot of time in the Occupy Wall Street camp, interviewing students who were buried under tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, workers toiling away in three different jobs (and still finding time to protest), and people who had struggled to find a job in the hostile economic environment.

But then she went home and turned on the news. According to many news outlets, the Occupy movement did not comprise an overwhelming majority of peaceful, ordinary citizens who were tired of the country’s class divide and Wall Street’s unscrupulous practices. Rather, according to sources like CNN and Fox News, Occupiers were dirty, smelly hippies who were too lazy to find real work.

"The Daily Show" was quick to jump on the hippie-punching train.

The show ran a hit piece on Occupy in October 2011 in which correspondent John Oliver wandered around Zuccotti Park, encountering some of the protest’s stranger characters.

“How amongst the 99 percent did I still feel like I didn’t fit in?” too-cool-for-collective-action John Oliver wondered aloud, before consulting with “the 98 percent of Americans who might agree with the protesters’ message if it weren’t for the protesters themselves.”

Because, you know, "The Daily Show" loves Occupy! Just not the Occupy composed of the Occupiers, who are bad and silly and smelly.

In November, just a couple days after Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Zuccotti Park, "The Daily Show" aired another hit piece with correspondent Samantha Bee interviewing the most stereotypically spacey Occupiers she could find sleeping at the camp. That’s not to say there aren’t those elements within Occupy, but it was alarming to see "The Daily Show" fall into the same habits of hippie-punching seen in the establishment media.

"The Daily Show’s" message to its audience was clear: Occupy Wall Street is weird. Don’t join them.

Again, in Stewart’s defense, he is not the only writer on "The Daily Show," and he clearly never wanted to be assigned this role of progressive leader.

He really couldn’t be more overt about it. So no one should have been surprised when Stewart, whose brother, Larry, worked as the chief operating officer of NYSE Euronext (2010–2013), the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, didn’t really seem to get what Occupy Wall Street was pissed off about.

Many liberals were shocked—shocked!—that "The Daily Show" completely ignored the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, one of the most important grassroots movements to ever occur in the United States. But they really, really shouldn’t have been.

Occupiers are just, like, so totally uncool to still be on this whole “Wall Street” corruption thing.

According to Stewart and "The Daily Show," activists who “glitter bomb” homophobic politicians are acting like “petulant children,” and Occupy Wall Street is a bunch of scatterbrained hippies who don’t truly represent the 99 percent. This is hardly a show that has its fingers on the pulse of the activist community. If the authors were given to copyright infringement, they might publish the following as an appendix in this book:

"The Daily Show’s" Guide to Activism

  1. Wake up.
  2. Play Xbox for one to seven hours.
  3. Throw away empty PBR cans.
  4. Write angry Tumblr post about evils of corporations while smoking Marlboro reds, eating McDonald’s hamburger, and drinking Pepsi beverage.
  5. Watch "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.
  6. Email petition to family.
  7. Avoid phone calls from family members.
  8. Change Twitter avatar to whatever color for whatever latest third-world country is being destroyed by crazed dictator.
  9. Search Wikipedia for information on said country in case later quizzed.
  10. Play Xbox for several more hours.
  11. Go to sleep with self-satisfied smile on face.

Real activism doesn’t work that way. You can’t appoint a progressive messiah and listen to him snipe through your flat screen and expect for things to magically get better.

The only way to effect real change is through the precise instances of direct action that "The Daily Show"—supposed bastion of liberalism—repeatedly mocks, not only in brief comedy sketches on late-night TV, but on a grand scale such as the Rally to Restore Sanity.

In conclusion: Never trust a show owned by Viacom to lead a counterculture revolution. If "The Daily Show" was ever a real threat to the establishment, it would have been canceled years ago.

Excerpted from "Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will," by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny. Copyright © 2014 by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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