It’s hard to determine exactly when the fake news of Jon Stewart eclipsed the legitimacy of the real thing.
It came long before the debacle with NBC anchor Brian Williams telling tall tales about his exploits in Iraq. Or closer to home, Global TV’s Leslie Roberts resigning over conflict of interest allegations.
But it doesn’t really matter. What remains is that over the last 16 years, The Daily Show host changed the way we look at news today.
The conceit of the anchor as the voice from on high, that authoritative narrator on history’s most important moments, could not endure in the self-reverential age (memories of Walter Cronkite notwithstanding).
Stewart took a comedic shotgun to the pomposity of the anchor desk as pulpit and, using satire, bluster and not a little anger, he cut through the hypocrisy of politics and corporate double speak.
In his own meta way he created “the most trusted name in fake news.”
And now he’s leaving. Stewart signs off on Aug. 6 in what has been a tumultuous time for late-night TV. David Letterman said goodbye in May after three decades. Jay Leno left last year.
The absence of the late-night hosts, but particularly Stewart, just before the U.S. presidential election will be keenly felt. Despite his protests that he is “just a comic,” Stewart was far more than that. Polls over the years revealed that he is one of the most trusted newsmen in a more cynical America that no longer trusted the news.
It’s hard to imagine now that the original host of The Daily Show was the enormously popular, but now historically irrelevant Craig Kilborn. When Stewart took over in 1999 he transformed it from its frat boy humour roots to the television equivalent of The Onion but with a more potent platform. His take on the political happenings of the day eventually became part of the wider conversation.
If you wanted to find out about Iran or the Greek economic bailout (“It’s like the economic equivalent of sitting on Greece’s chest and drooling into their mouths”) Stewart gave you the news in a context that anyone could understand.
In the process his influence has been legion. The fake correspondents from his show have gone on to pollinate the pop culture universe with their own talk shows and performances from Steve Carrell, to Stephen Colbert, to John Oliver, Larry Wilmore and Canada’s Samantha Bee.
And while that legacy may be the most visible, it is not his most important. His lasting impact will be in his upending of the media apparatus.
Over the years, as networks struggled with cutbacks and the multi-channel universe, Stewart has been a vocal critic of the dumbing down of news, including taking shots at cable networks for reporting with a political agenda at the expense of truth.
The watershed moment for many was his appearance on CNN’s Crossfire talk show.
There he accused hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of being “partisan hacks” and appealed to them to “stop hurting America.”
Perhaps Stewart was dismayed at what passed for journalism in the modern age. Instead of costly investigative journalism, or having boots on the ground in foreign bureaus, it was cheaper for networks to have shouty talk shows with people of different political stripes yelling at each other.
You see that on the endless panel shows on CNN, FOX or CNBC and even at Canada’s CBC.
But lost in the noise was an accurate reflection of what was really happening out there. Stewarts’s comments a decade ago were never more on point. Newsreaders used to be authoritative because they were objective.
Now newsmakers have to be personalities, commenting on the banal. Also known as that stuff your kids find on YouTube. So you have Anderson Cooper with his “RidicuList,” reading items of the day that he thinks are silly.
Instead of burnishing the role of anchor, the RidicuList and its ilk diminishes it. While conversely, the use of frivolity enhances the trustworthiness of Stewart. Viewers know there is a difference between cutting edge satire and simply being irreverent to grab audience share.
Over the years, though you could tell that Stewart was getting worn down by the silly. Trashing CNBC or FOX News was, after all, like shooting fish in a barrel.
It remains to be seen whether South African comic Trevor Noah will have the chops to continue Stewart’s political legacy when he takes over Sept. 28.
“I’m issuing a new executive order. Jon Stewart cannot leave,” U.S. President Barack Obama said as one of the final guests on the show.
If Obama were running for re-election that probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea, since Stewart’s endorsement would be worth more than any musty editorial in the New York Times. (According to Politico, Stewart was a not infrequent visitor to the White House for private meetings, testament to his reach.)
Meanwhile, the comedic gods have given Stewart a rare departing gift in the form of billionaire Donald Trump, or as Stewart calls him, what would be “our first openly a--hole president,” with hair that is pure “comedy entrapment.”
Trump has said that Stewart’s show “wants him” and a final show with Trump as the guest would be comedy gold. We can only hope.