After 16 years in command, Jon Stewart is to retire on August 6 as host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Stewart inherited the reins of the show from Craig Kilborn in the last year of the last millennium and took its slacker, stoner humor into the 21st century. Fans will mourn Stewart, who turned the show, and himself, a stand-up comedian, into one of America’s most trusted news sources. Politicians left and right will lose an interviewer capable, unlike cable news pundits, of offering insightful discussions even when he disagreed with the guest. And, far from the public eye, media researchers will lose a research topic.
Typing “Jon Stewart” and Daily Show in Google Scholar, the search engine’s scholastic version, brings more than 5,000 hits, proof of the popularity of the comedian/TV host/author in academic circles. Euronews talked to a selection of these scholars and experts who have spent months; even years, investigating the Jon Stewart phenomenon to see what they have to say as their research topic leave the stage.
“He did not have it in him anymore”
For them, Stewart’s departure is no surprise. “The closing of this chapter of his [Stewart’s] career was inevitable and you could see him beginning to explore other projects,” Lance Holbert, a professor and Chair of the Department of Strategic Communication at Temple University, tells Euronews. Stewart indeed took a hiatus from the show in the summer of 2013 to direct the movie Rosewater. It tells the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist imprisoned in 2009 during the presidential election. During his trial, the prosecution showed clips of an interview he gave to the Daily Show‘s Jason Jones, then in character as an over-the-top American foreign correspondent. Iranian courts failed to see the joke. They accused him of working with Western spies disguised as a journalist, and jailed him, harshly interrogating him for almost 120 days.
“You could see the fatigue in Stewart’s eyes and hear it in his voice,” points out Dr Jeffrey P Jones at the University of Georgia. “In some ways, it was time,” concurs Geoffrey Baym, a professor at Temple University. With the passing years, “Stewart has become noticeably tired. The show must be extremely demanding. He also is clearly tired of the perpetual noise, misinformation and disinformation constantly being generated by the Fox News Channel, which has become his primary foil over the last several years.” For Baym, weariness was key in the host’s decision to retire. “Fox has proven quite immune to Stewart’s critique and shows no signs of changing its ways any time soon.”
“Stewart simply didn’t have it in him anymore to wage the daily battle against stupidity, crass ideological propaganda and the overall anti-intellectualism that permeates certain facets of American life,” details Jones, who heads the prestigious Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia.
“An exceedingly important television program”
The Daily Show earned its first Peabody award, which recognises “distinguished achievement and meritorious public service” in broadcast media, for its coverage of the 2000 US presidential election. Stewart and his team aptly-named dubbed it Indecision 2000. But the show’s rise to cultural significance – its watershed moment – came after the 9/11 attacks.
Stewart’s emotional, earnest yet beautifully-crafted monologue showed him at his most vulnerable. It was also a founding moment, a first glimpse at the moral compass that guided him in the following years as George W Bush’s United States descended into unapologetic jingoism and took part in foreign wars. “In the context of the George W. Bush presidency, which was when the program rose to national prominence, Stewart provided a critical counter-balance to the hegemonic, post-9/11 political conversation that dominated the American airwaves,” Baym explains, and provided a welcome relief.
Watch Jon Stewart’s monologue after the 9/11 attacks
Since 1999, Stewart and the team have received 50 Emmy Award nominations, winning 19, and earned a flurry of other accolades. They scored another Peabody award for Indecision 2004, the show’s coverage of the presidential race which saw Bush re-elected against John Kerry.
As awards piled in, the audience grew larger, and fonder. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that “among those under the age of 30, 6% cited Stewart as their favorite journalist, making him along with Bill O’Reilly the top pick among this age group.” Overall, Stewart, who always insists he is no journalist, was eighth in the ranking for Most Admired News Figure in the survey. And when in 2014 the Pew Research Center asked online adults from where they got their news in the prior week, using a list of 36 different news outlets, 12% cited The Daily Show.
“Ideology aside, The Daily Show has been an exceedingly important television program” says Baym, who co-edited with Jones in 2012 a book titled News Parody and Political Satire Across the Globe exploring world’s satirical fake news shows – some directly inspired by Stewart. “During Stewart’s tenure as host, the show helped to reinvent American political satire, and created unprecedented ways to talk about, critique and engage in democratic politics. We had never really seen this kind of mixture of humor, information, advocacy, argument and conversation before” at time, the professor argues, when traditional sources of news, especially on US television, were losing relevance and credibility.
The growing audience and surveys such as Pew’s piqued the curiosity of media and communication scholars eager to understand the phenomenon and assess the effects of satire in general and Stewart’s in particular. “In terms of potential influence on the electorate, Jon Stewart generated an audience sufficiently large to garner academic attention,” Holbert explains. “Most of all, the Daily Show blurred the lines between traditional journalism and political entertainment in a manner that continues to generate inquiry.”
“Some studies find that up to 20% of young people get their news only from fake news shows such as the Daily Show“ notes Helle Rytkønen, a Dane who taught for several years at Stanford University, including a class in 2012 where students produced a Stanford version of the Daily Show. “Those young people vote, earn money and seemed to be well informed, at least about the major topics of the day. With such a large number turning to fake news, it’s important to look at fake news’ opportunities. Can it reach audiences who might otherwise not be interested in news? Can it use humor to address issues in surprising ways which make audiences think differently about them?”
A love affair with the Daily Show?
Hundreds of research papers, chapters and books are dedicated to studying Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, paralleling the show’s rise to prominence. To the point that this popularity irked some.
Stephen Cushion, a senior lecturer in Journalism at Cardiff University, tells in his 2012 book Television Journalism the story of what is possibly the most telling argument about Stewart. At the November 2006 National Communication Association conference in San Diego, Jon Stewart and his show ended up at the centre of a heated debate.
Stewart was mockingly tried in a conference paper by Roderick Hart, then a professor at University of Texas in Austin, and Johanna Hartelius, a then-doctorate student, The speech, parodying the style of a prosecutor, accused Stewart of many evils, the most evil being the promotion of cynicism. Titled “The Political Sins of Jon Stewart,” the authors lashed out, ambiguously tongue-in-cheek, at the comedian. “We accuse Jon Stewart of political heresy (…) [He] has engaged in unbridled political cynicism (…) [He made] cynicism atmospheric, a mist that hovers over us each day.”
The show’s popularity was criticised as well – “we understand that Stewart is also very, very popular (…) [He is] especially attractive to young people” – including in academic circles. “We know that, for many academics, Stewart is a political savior, an emblem of the subversive, take-no-prisoners attitude needed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Some observers even find Stewart to be a staunch defender of democratic values, a person who undermines a thousand pomposities each night. We disagree…”
Hart and Hartelius concluded by rejecting Stewart’s perceived cynicism, which can, according to them, only promote inertia. They instead advocated for skepticism, which can trigger change.
Watch a time lapse of 16 years of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
At the same conference, in a counter-argument to Hart and Hartelius’ indictment, University of Washington professor Lance Bennett gave a passionate plea dubbed “Relief in Hard Times: A Defense of Jon Stewart’s Comedy in an Age of Cynicism”.
“Cynicism in a cynical world is no crime. To the contrary, when taken in measured doses and combined with other tools for building independent perspective, it may be necessary for maintaining independence of thought and action.” Bennett argued. “People exposed to Jon Stewart do not retreat behind a smug veil of cynicism but, instead, employ cynicism as a perspective-building tool to engage with politics and civic life.”
He too pointed out the popularity of Stewart extending to academia, but used it to his advantage. His plea began with: “Esteemed members of the jury: is there anyone here who is not a fan of Jon Stewart? As no hands are raised, I move to empanel all of you as jurors in this case.”
What lessons to remember?
For scholars, whether they are fans of Stewart or not, the study of Jon Stewart gleaned precious lessons. “We have clear evidence that entertainment-based media can influence politics in meaningful ways” thanks to this research, Holbert sums up. To what extent exactly is, however, still disputed by more skeptical scholars.
For Jones, research showed Stewart’s work was truly ground-breaking. “Most of American social science has worked from a bifurcated view of public discourse — serious discussion on one side, entertainment media on the other. The fact that an entertaining talk show could, in fact, provide meaningful information or valuable contributions to public discourse is simply something most political and social scientists couldn’t fathom. Stewart was one of the first entertainment television hosts to prove them wrong.”
Not to mention that the Daily Show proved that “political culture and popular culture are intimately intertwined. Popular culture is constantly reflecting upon but also shaping politics in numerous ways, and that does not mean a “dumbing down” of public life,” Jones underlines. “Stewart demonstrated what a public rhetor who stands outside the formal political and news arenas can contribute.”
To put it differently, “people used to ask if The Daily Show was news or comedy. And the answer is yes. That is, it isn’t either news or comedy, but both. And so much more” says Baym. “In provocative ways, it was able to harness this hybrid mixture to offer a more penetrating take on public affairs than most forms of traditional news.”
In addition, for the scholar, studying Stewart has taught us “the power of satire and irony to penetrate the kind of meaningless spectacle that has come to characterise much public politics and television news alike” and get through “to engage a generation that had largely tuned out ‘the news’.” Baym warns “that isn’t to say that from now on, all journalism needs to be satirical, but that well-crafted, and well-intended, satire can be a powerful vehicle for political information, argument, and engagement.”
“Stewart’s plea has fallen in deaf ears”
Can fake news and satire then be a solution to educate and mobilise – young – citizens? Hard to be certain. One more critical lesson of the scholarship on the Daily Show, Holbert underlines, is that the effects of political satire are conditional and depend on the nature, source, receiver, form and context of the consumption of the satirical message. “They all play a role in determining its effects on democratic processes and outcomes.”
For Rytkønen, fake news has other limitations: “Jon Stewart himself would likely be the first person to worry if someone only got her news from the Daily Show – as I understand it, he is an avid consumer of news – and the Daily Show did not have a staff large enough to do investigative journalism.”
Baym is harsher in the appraisal of the show. “Ultimately, [Stewart] didn’t have the material impact some of us might have hoped for. It has been more than a decade since Stewart became a household name, and although he made a fortune, and his show became a legitimate source of political news and an important site of political opinion formation, he wasn’t able to impact the wider conduct of American political discourse.”
“Fox News is still dominating the conversation,” the Temple University professor adds. “American politics are more polarized and dysfunctional than even ten years ago, and the wider political process is no more reasonable than when Stewart first appeared on air. He constantly pleads for American politicians, news media and citizens alike to engage in a more rational and honest kind of public conversation, but I’m afraid that plea has fallen on deaf ears.”
Watch the full Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear
Stewart did however manage to gather tens of thousands in Washington DC on October 30, 2010 for the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear organised with his Comedy Central colleague, the mock über-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert. There, Stewart, in between jokes and musical guests, criticised the forces at play for polarising the political debate in the US. “This was not a rally to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times,” he told the crowd.
So what’s next?
Looking to the future, Jones wonders what public life “will be like without such an astute observer and watch dog standing guard. Television news often does a poor job of monitoring those in power, as well as checking lies and propaganda from within their own ranks. Stewart’s position outside the Media-Politics axis made him a particularly insightful and powerful observer and critic.”
As often with academia, more research on the topic is needed. “The Daily Show itself isn’t going off the air,” Baym notes. “Trevor Noah, a talented, but relatively unknown, at least in the US, South African comedian has been named as the new host. Of course, his show will be quite different from the one Jon Stewart helped craft over the past 16 years, so we will need to wait to see how the new show compares to the old one.”
“We’ve been better off for having The Daily Show,” Baym concludes. Yet, “Stewart has referred to Fox as ‘bullshit mountain,’ and it’s clear that mountain isn’t getting any smaller. I can well understand why Stewart is ready to move on.”