"The Problem with Jon Stewart" achieved supreme viral status for the first time this fall, thanks to Arkansas' Republican attorney general Leslie Rutledge's inability to withstand a very basic line of questioning.
Stewart visited the state official's office, sitting down with her on her own turf, to ask her to explain the logic behind the 2021 passage of the "Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act" (HB 1570), which bans doctors from providing puberty blockers or performing hormone therapy.
Their conversation largely consisted of Stewart attempting to wring an honest answer out of Rutledge on a single point: "Why would the state of Arkansas step in to override parents, physicians, psychiatrists, endocrinologists who have developed guidelines, why would you override those guidelines?"
The host was very specific as to which professionals he was referring, citing the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society, and the American Association of Psychiatrists, all organizations that recommend a certain set of guidelines for children expressing gender dysphoria. Rutledge responded by claiming that for every single one of those doctors and experts, "there's an expert that says, we don't need to allow children to be able to take those medications."
"But you know that's not true," Stewart counters. "You know it's not 'for every one, there's one.'" Rutledge rebuts that she doesn't know that's true, which leads Stewart to wonder: if she doesn't know if that's true, then why pass this law?
The full interview lasted for about 16 minutes, the longest segment of the second season premiere, "The War Over Gender," and earned widespread praise. Many media analysts observed that this is the type of probative interview professional journalists should be conducting with elected officials. But this is nothing new for Stewart, the 2022 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for comedy and a man who, at the height of his tenure on "The Daily Show", reminded people that he is a comedian, not Edward R. Murrow.
Breaking down broadcast news' myriad failures is Stewart's bread and butter.
Having said that, if there is an episode equivalent to a whetstone against which Stewart honed his sophomore season approach, it may be the first season's penultimate episode about, yes, the media. Breaking down broadcast news' myriad failures is Stewart's bread and butter, a tradition picked up and refined by "Daily Show" staffers that went on to helm their own shows, including John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj, Larry Wilmore and Wyatt Cenac. (Out of this group, only Oliver and Colbert still have shows.)
The "Media" episode takes a slightly different approach than usual, in that instead of merely bemoaning the TV newsroom tendency to take excellent journalism and smother it in useless alarmist garbage designed to be confusing, torrential, and addictive, he digs into why that is.
Jon Stewart in "The Problem With Jon Stewart" (Apple TV+)
And when no network news presidents or directors agree to speak with Stewart, he turns instead to Robert Iger, the former chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, ABC's and ABC News' corporate owner. Together they confirm what people who view the news with a critical eye already know, which is that the rise of right-wing media successfully conflated news and opinion, driving down the public's trust in the news media and journalists.
Iger tells Stewart that the late Roger Ailes, the Fox executive who molded the network into the hate machine that it is today, figured out there was a business in being biased. "But then, what we've also seen is that other news organizations then pivoted in another direction as a countermeasure to what he was doing," Iger adds. "That, to me, was a huge mistake. That was at the expense of credibility, at the expense of being accurate, and I would argue at the expense of being responsible."
At this Stewart wonders aloud whether there's money to be made by presenting news in a manner that's not as relentlessly hyperbolic. Iger's response is depressingly realistic: "I just don't know how practical that is," Iger says, explaining that this isn't simply a matter of financial viability. "I'm much more interested in whether it would truly make a difference in the world."
Stewart seems determined to test that interest — as far as one can when one hosts a public affairs-focused interview show on a small streaming service.
My initial review of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" made a crack about resisting the easy and cute headline, but in this case, it's tough to avoid since the problem with this show is its relatively narrow availability. Now that Stewart's interviewing mojo is back online, the main concern should be getting more people to see the useful work he's doing, which should inspire fellow interviewers to tighten up their techniques and standards.
A recent example with direct relevance to the 2022 midterm elections is Stewart's interview with Arizona's Attorney General Mark Brnovich in the October 28 episode titled, "Midterms: This Is What Democracy Looks Like?" Stewart points out that Brnovich's Election Integrity Unit, which the official claims has "run a lot of the stuff to ground" — is giving credence to conspiracy theories contending that Arizona's election results are fraudulent.
"When you get it 'to ground,' will you come out and say 'Donald J. Trump is wrong. The election in Arizona was fair, not stolen and not fraudulent?'" Stewart asks. Again, it's a simple question.
Now that Stewart's interviewing mojo is back online, the main concern should be getting more people to see the useful work he's doing.
Brnovich draws out the spin with, "I've always been a straight shooter." Eventually, he comes out and says, "Donald Trump lost Arizona. Period. I've said that from the very beginning." He quickly adds, "we still have some active investigations going on, but people can draw their own conclusions—"
Stewart cuts him off. "No. People cannot draw their own conclusions. That's the point of the law. The law is that you have facts, and you have fiction. The fact is the election in Arizona was well run, not fraudulent, and not stolen from Donald Trump according to even your investigations. Why is it so hard to just say yes to that?
At this Brnovich continues to talk in circles, and a grinning Stewart simply says, "This is blowing my mind."
At Stewart points out, Brnovich went on Steve Bannon's show and brayed, "We all know what happened."
It seems the A.G. is determined to play both sides. But if you were to watch his interview with Scott Pelley on the October 30 episode of "60 Minutes," you would be left with the impression that Brnovich was rock solid in his position that no fraud occurred. Brnovich's appearance on Bannon's show isn't mentioned.
"It's all bulls**t," Stewart tells Brnovich. "And you know it's all bulls**t," adding that the real threat to American democracy is the alarmingly high number of people who don't believe in the multiply verified results of the 2020 presidential election.
Jon Stewart, Teresa de Graaf, Virginia Chau, Esq. and Adrian Fontes in the "Elections" episode of season two of "The Problem With Jon Stewart" (Apple TV+)
The second half of Season 1 of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" streamed in March of this year, and represents an improvement over the lackluster if well-meaning opening four that premiere in late 2021.
But the second season, which launched in October, is even leaner and sharper. Gone are the writers' room bits, which were humanizing but added to the torpor. Instead, "The Problem" presses more forcefully into its confrontations with elected officials who other interviewers would allow to spew utterly false nonsense without calling them on it.
Even better, Stewart uses his table to grant the people who aren't usually heard in political conversations an opportunity to have their say without being interrupted by more powerful voices who aren't interested in good-faith arguments.
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Earlier in "The War Over Gender," Stewart hosted a roundtable that included Keisha Bell and Debi Jackson, parents to transgender children, alongside the ACLU's Deputy Director for Transgender Justice Chase Strangio and Dr. Joshua Safer, Executive Director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.
Bell and Jackson vehemently disagree with descriptions of being "woke" parents blinkered by political correctness, for example. Strangio and Safer refute claims that gender-affirming treatment is dangerous or abusive.
He takes a similar approach in the "Midterms" installment, allowing two people who volunteer to help run elections to share their perspective, letting people know about the threats they've faced. Instead of viewing the issue through a lens of false equivalence, Stewart gives a face and a voice to the people most intimately impacted by needlessly punitive policies and dangerous conspiracy theory.
These are vital, substantive conversations that should receive a broader reach. But perhaps the best we can hope for is that journalists with bigger audiences might be inspired by what Stewart is doing.
"I've seen the impact that one news organization has had on the deterioration of it," he tells Iger. "Somebody's got to generate fodder that's better quality." Once again, and on a much smaller stage, the task falls to him.
New episodes of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" stream Fridays on Apple TV+.
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