This week, journalists have been robbed of a guilty pleasure. In several months, we will no longer wrap ourselves in frayed bathrobes, sip a stiff cup of joe, click on the tablet and enjoy — nay, really savor — watching our profession get lampooned.
Most of us, we’ll quickly add, get our daily dose of Jon Stewart after consuming the news in less comedic ways — online, in print and on our Twitter feeds. (And most of the 2.2 million viewers watch the show the morning after it airs, online or on social media.) But now that the master of the “epic takedown” is set to step down as anchor of The Daily Show, who will make journalists laugh at ourselves? And who, by virtue of his sheer universality, will goad us into being better journalists?
Oh, sure, sure. Some of us take contumacious pleasure in seeing Stewart skewer politicians whom we cannot because doctrines of journalistic fairness and balance forbid it.
As Stewart told PBS’s Bill Moyers in 2003, four years after becoming Daily anchor:
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ll run into a journalist and go, ‘Boy, that’s . . . I wish we could be saying that. That’s exactly the way we see it and that’s exactly the way we’d like to be saying that.’ And I always think, ‘Well, why don’t you?'”
And while Stewart has been accused of being a member of the liberal media elite (he insists he isn’t a journalist), he also doesn’t hesitate to take down media purveyors of any stripe. Fox News has been a favorite target, but CNN, MSNBC and even beleaguered NBC anchor Brian Williams have been fair game.
During January’s bumbled coverage of the Eastern seaboard snowstorm, Stewart took aim at CNN’s Don Lemon for using a dash-cam to roam New York’s barely dusted streets in the network’s “Live Blizzardmobile.”
“As always when there is innovation in the field of newsgathering, we look to CNN for its worst iteration,” he quipped.
After CNN’s Rick Sanchez got canned for calling Stewart a bigot, Stewart opined: “Perhaps even CNN will now be looking to use his vacated time slot to get in touch with their better Sanchez and starve parasites like myself by putting on quality news and discussion.”
When frequent guest Williams was suspended this week for exaggerating accounts of coverage of the Iraq war, Stewart indicted not only the NBC anchor, but the media for its sanctimonious response.
“Never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual f****** war,” he said.
“I love that now the media pretends that they must guard the crown jewel of their credibility when we’ve already seen that it’s Al Capone’s vault.”
Thus characterized, most any self-respecting journalist would look inward to see if the jab sticks, right?
“Now, I’m hardly in favor of The New York Times mimicking The Daily Show,” wrote USA Today columnist Rem Rieder. “But Stewart has underscored the limitations of being too muffled, too timid. It’s really not helpful to report that A says this, B says that and call it a day.”
Critics this week claimed The Daily Show has lost its edge, or perhaps has too few targets left to take aim at.
“It’s fair to say that no one in the last 20 years has done more to change journalism’s style than Stewart,” wrote Washington Post’s Ryan McCarthy. “That’s because The Daily Show was pretty crucial in shaping rhythm, style and distribution methods of today’s Web media.”
Having sat through many dinner-table denunciations of the media by my right-leaning family, I can be peevish when it comes to defending press freedoms and the role of the media. Somehow, Stewart’s jibes don’t set me on edge. Maybe that’s because they are cloaked in such wicked humor. Maybe it’s because he’s so damn smart.
Moyers once said he starts his day with Josh Marshall and ends it with Jon Stewart.
We have plenty of Josh Marshalls to go around. But how are we going to get through the 2016 election with one less comedian?