Fox News wore Jon Stewart down: How 16 years of debunking right-wing lies exhausted the last honest man

Stewart is stepping aside because he's exhausted by our petty, dangerous politics. Now we're really screwed

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published July 15, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

AP/Reuters/Comedy Central/Salon
AP/Reuters/Comedy Central/Salon

If you are feeling withdrawal after the first week of Jon Stewart’s two-week break from “The Daily Show,” then consider how you will feel after his run ends on Aug. 6.

As he explained on July 2 before vacation, he is off for two weeks only to come back for a three-week sprint to the finish.  Ever since he announced in February that he was stepping down, many of us have wondered how our dysfunctional political and media culture will operate without the hard-hitting satire he has offered us for over 16 years.  There is little doubt that Stewart has not just played a role as a powerful public intellectual able to critique the media and politicians when we need it most; he has also redefined satire in an era when most media and politics already seem like a farce.

Of course, not everyone loved Stewart.  Obviously those who watch Fox News barely, if ever, did.  He also came under fire from those on the left who felt he wasn’t effective enough in his satire, that he pulled punches, or even that he depended on the very system he mocked.  According to Steve Almond in an influential essay in the Baffler, Stewart is a parasite of the dysfunction he mocks.  But I consider the anti-Stewart crowd to fall largely into two camps: those that hate that he is telling the truth and making them look stupid, and those that hate that he is having fun while doing it.

The thing is, Stewart is stepping down at the top of his game.  One could speculate endlessly on why he is deciding to end his era as host: He wants to go out on a high, spend more time with family, explore directing films, and so on.  But as appealing as these explanations may be, they aren’t right. Stewart is stepping down because he is sick of following the depressing and dangerous politics of the Tea Party GOPers and he is tired of watching the way that Fox News sustains them.

In a set of interviews with Hadley Freeman for the Guardian in April, Stewart explained that one reason he wanted out was so he did not have to cover another election.  He explains, “I’d covered an election four times, and it didn’t appear that there was going to be anything wildly different about this one.”

Well, you are thinking, who could have predicted 14 GOP candidates in the primaries or the fun of Donald Trump?  Maybe now, you hope, he will regret leaving.  But sadly, the answer is -- no, no regrets: He saw this coming and is leaving anyway.  He knew well that this election would be a circus.  And he knew that if he stayed on as host he would be responsible for bringing a tight satirical edge to the insanity of the day.  Most of all, he knew he would have to watch Fox News. And that idea was simply intolerable: “Watching these channels all day is incredibly depressing,” says Stewart. “I live in a constant state of depression. I think of us as turd miners. I put on my helmet, I go and mine turds, hopefully I don’t get turd lung disease.”

Is there any chance he would watch Fox News after stepping down as host? Stewart’s answer is an unequivocal “no way”: “Umm … All right, let’s say that it’s a nuclear winter, and I have been wandering, and there appears to be a flickering light through what appears to be a radioactive cloud and I think that light might be a food source that could help my family. I might glance at it for a moment until I realise, that’s Fox News, and then I shut it off.”

Could Stewart really be giving up his show due to Fox News fatigue?  And if that is true, what does this say about political discourse in our nation? Does this mean Fox News won and Stewart gave up?  I’d like to stay optimistic, but it’s time to take seriously the idea that Fox News killed the greatest satire show of our nation’s history.

Think about it; since Stewart started hosting his show Fox News has thrived—and it has thrived despite a constant, biting satirical show hosted by Stewart that consistently called out Fox News failures.  During the run of Stewart as host of “The Daily Show,” Fox News has spun lies even more than ever. It also has more devout followers that are increasingly distanced from any fact-based reality known to humanity.  Polls indicate that Fox News viewers are consistently swinging toward extremism that is hate-based and fact-averse.

Fox News viewers deny climate change, worship Chris Kyle and think the Confederate flag is a symbol of honor.  They blame the murders of black youth on black youth rather than the actual people who kill them (but they aren’t racist). They hate immigrants and science and gay couples who want marriage rights.  They blame everything on Obama and they are frightened by female sexuality.  The only things they love are their guns, their delusions and their fear. Nothing Stewart ever said has made one bit of difference to them.

Now you’re thinking that Stewart never aimed his show at Fox News viewers; he aimed it at those of us who are already skeptical of the channel.  But clearly that isn’t entirely true.  If Stewart built much of his satire around covering the politics of the extreme right-wing and the news channel that loves them, then we have to admit that he did at least hope to make some sort of impact on public perception – a public that also includes the very same people who watch Fox News.  If not, why the ongoing tussles with Bill O’Reilly? Why the fact-checking vines? There had to be at least a little hope that there were some reasonable folks out there in Fox-land that might tune in and listen.

While Stewart was always quick to go after CNN and other news outlets when they got it wrong, he was often the watchdog for Fox News and its daily circus of inanity. As Freeman remarks in her interview with Stewart, Fox News is pernicious not only for its fear-mongering and inaccuracy; it has been its support of the most extreme factions of the GOP that has had the most devastating political impact on U.S. democracy.  And while many – like Sean Illing on Salon -- think that the extremism of Fox News is poised to backfire and has all but rendered political conservatism in this country dead, it is worth considering the real power the channel has to shape public opinion.

And that is why the last show that Stewart did before taking his break was so revealing. On that show he went after Donald Trump, pointing out the stupidity and arrogance of his remarks about Mexican immigrants. He then did a classic Stewart move and followed up his satire of a politician’s idiotic behavior with more satire of the idiotic media coverage of the idiotic politician.  Stewart pointed out all of the insanity of Trump and of Fox News’ adoration of Trump.  He joked that Trump has been there for him all along and that he was sure “the Donald” would give him more than enough material to finish out his show.  He went after the “buzzword, fucking bullshit” spewed by Ted Cruz as he tried to blame “the p.c. crowd” for misunderstanding Trump’s concern for the border.  He was sharp and insightful and fun and engaging.

But then came the moment of reckoning.  As he wound down the bit he exclaimed: “There is one good thing to come out of this. The farce of his candidacy is finally exposed. His unseriousness on display for all people and voters to see.  And the results will be obvious.”  He then cut to coverage that shows Trump polling at second place nationally and second place in Iowa and New Hampshire. A dejected Stewart looks down at his desk and simply mutters “fuck me.”

That “fuck me” resonates with all of us that are tired of watching Fox News and exhausted by covering GOP politics while their discourse becomes more extreme, more delusional and more dangerous.  Now we can hope that their rhetoric represents a relatively small—but extremely loud—segment of society.  And we can take refuge in the reality that smart coverage of these issues—especially when it takes the form of satire–can have a powerful impact on those of us with access to critical reasoning skills. But we can’t ignore the real fatigue that sets in when neither the truth, nor reason, nor irony seems to make absolutely no difference to those who need to hear us most.

Stewart will go down in U.S. history as one of the most important satirists of all time. He changed news media, he rallied the public, and he offered a vision of citizenship that was engaged and entertaining. He made political satire not just a take on the news, but a source of the news. His real commitment to democratic ideals and equal rights made his satire seem well-meaning and inspired, rather than malicious and caustic.  As he claimed in the Guardian interview, stepping down as host does not mean giving up his interest in politics:

Whether it’s standup, the show, books or films, I consider all this just different vehicles to continue a conversation about what it means to be a democratic nation, and to have it written into the constitution that all men are created equal – but to live with that for 100 years with slaves. How do those contradictions play themselves out? And how do we honestly assess our failings and move forward with integrity?

It is hard to imagine how we can “assess our failings and move forward with integrity” without going after Fox News and the GOP.  It’s even harder to imagine what this election cycle will be like without Stewart.  I understand his fatigue, but seeing him go feels like watching our star player give up while the bullies take over the field.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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