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The Last American Newscaster

By Dan Whitley | Think Pieces | August 4, 2015 |

By Dan Whitley | Think Pieces | August 4, 2015 |

We’re at the point now that we can count the number of days Stewart has left on The Daily Show on one hand. If your friends have political leanings at all more liberal than the Tea Party, this has likely been met with loud and expressive sorrow over the loss of the last sane political voice on television. Stewart’s departure after 16 years (Jesus!) spent lampooning the Hill and the News means that anyone politically-left of your grandmother will have nowhere to turn. The End Times are upon us.

I’ve never really been able to work out why Stewart struck me as the odd man out among the people in my TV who were probably bullshitting me, other than the fact that he was making fun of the bullshitters. When I first found him in late high school the answer seemed obvious: He likes the people I like, he hates the people I hate, he makes me laugh, and he admits his mistakes. But once I got to college, once Bush left office, once I began to form actual, useful political opinions to replace my knee-jerk, youth-fueled, anti-establishment rebellion, Stewart managed to stick around, likely because he and his show started becoming about more than taking potshots at idiots. There’s a point in The Daily Show’s history - a nebulous point, but a point nonetheless - where TDS stopped being simply comedy.

What occurred is deceptively simple: Jon Stewart got angry. And I mean true, righteous anger, not just the pretend outrage of the jester he usually played, nor the affected offense of the pundits he parodied. No, Stewart began to get angry at things worth getting angry about, and his show began to morph from mere parody into true satire, and then again into an actual - albeit atypical - news outlet. The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have always been about delivering the truth, or at least reality, to their audience, but it wasn’t until about 7 years ago that they stopped only being funny about it. No slant, no bullshit, just reality with an amusing and, nowadays, poignant flourish.

This I believe is what has given Stewart true staying power. He has gone on record saying that his show is not actually aimed at anyone in particular insofar as demographics or political leanings are concerned. They simply observe the world and the news as it is, taking note of the hypocrisy and doubletalk and overall nonsense, and report on it in a way that is both informative and entertaining. That Stewart is a liberal, an unabashed and open one at that, and that this comes out in his program is of no true consequence.

Why? Because Stewart and The Daily Show are a modern version of the pre-war American newspaper. Up until the late 1930s, American news outlets and journalists and editors didn’t just have political stances and opinions, they were expected to have them. The news in America did not become the bastion of hyper-objectivity it is today (in theory) until after WW2, when, between McCarthyism and corporate consolidation of media companies, the number of printed and broadcast outlets in America hit rock bottom, where it remains to this day. And while the rise of Fox News and MSNBC have reminded Americans that the news can take a political stance, neither of those outlets have stances; they have biases.

Obvious, yes, but here’s the difference and why it matters with regard to The Daily Show: The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have liberal opinions, but do not really have a liberal bias. An opinionated news source will examine the events of the world as they have occurred, and then report them through that lens, be it liberal or conservative or somewhere between them. The stance of the paper / news channel / website / anchor does not (in theory) affect their reporting of the facts, and the outlet in question never denies holding its opinion. A biased source will instead pick and choose what to report based on their bias, and filter how they examine what they report through their lens. All news outlets have both to a greater or lesser degree, but a reputable news source always tries to hew toward opinion and away from bias.

Now perhaps it is easier to understand exactly how Jon Stewart operates on The Daily Show. The man does not brook idiocy, from anyone, regardless of their politics. A lot of people don’t seem to understand this about him, especially people on the right. Whenever Stewart speaks out against some left-winger doing stupid shit, it inevitably draws a snide reaction from someone on the right to the tune of “Oh look, Stewart had a moment of lucidity, good for him. Maybe he’s finally starting to wise up.” Observe the way the fringe-right reacts to Stewart’s comments against someone like Nancy Pelosi, someone on the left who he clearly has never liked. This point-and-ponder reaction from the right happens every time, even if Stewart’s been having these “fits of sanity” for the better part of a decade.

That might be the best way to encapsulate why people are drawn to someone like Jon Stewart. He assumes intelligence from his viewer, rather than agreement. He does not flatter the viewer, he merely takes it as a point of fact that people watching his show are smart and enjoy earnestness and truth, as well as people who enjoy a good laugh and a little irreverence now and then. Most importantly, he knows people tune in to his show because they are sick of being bullshitted. He offers a refuge against the screaming and the madness of the news, and that refuge can only be found in raw truth delivered in a comedic package.

Shortly before he died, David Foster Wallace wrote, “To really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.” Stewart is the help. People who watch him understand, probably subconsciously, that his show absolutely could not exist if he did not constantly deliver reality and truth and humor to his audience. The man admits his mistakes. If something false is aired on his show, he owns up to it plainly, and always apologizes, whether it’s his gaffe or a flub from his writing staff. And on some level he absolutely has to, since the show lives and breathes on the idea of exposing and mocking hypocrisy. The Daily Show would not exist if it weren’t honest, if it somehow managed to deliver reality but not live in it.

What this means for us is that The Daily Show can continue to live without Stewart in the anchor’s chair. He is not, as the title of this article implies, the Last American Newscaster, and The Daily Show is not the Last American News Outlet. Yet he also was these things for the terrifying interregnum period between when he announced his retirement and when we found a replacement in Trevor Noah.

We’re all scared; it’s more a matter of degrees of fear. A lot of what I’ve observed from The Daily Show faithful and Colbert Nation is a combination of eulogizing for both hosts and dread on the level of seeing Revelations omens. To be honest, I can’t really blame people who react that way, even if I’m not, since we’re about to lose our most trusted man. Back in my parents’ day, the sanity-starved public had a similar person in Walter Cronkite, who delivered the news for CBS for decades and was generally a total asskicker of a trustworthy news anchor. Jon Stewart is my generation’s Cronkite, in that he serves the same role of being “the most trusted man in America,” but he is not like Cronkite. And that’s fine, arguably crucial. Previous generations needed a lighthouse like Cronkite to moor their boats to in the stormy seas of the Cold War, whereas my generation needs a more fluid and bartender-type of figure to lead us through all this post-9/11 noise.

One of the cheesier things I’m willing to admit doing is that, just about every year on or just after September 11th, I make a point of rewatching Jon Stewart’s opening monologue from his first show back after the WTC and Pentagon attacks. It’s not the easiest thing to watch, as Stewart is a native New Yorker and spends a good nine minutes trying but not quite succeeding at keeping composure through the whole thing. But I do it because, as is the case with so many other, lesser issues, Stewart’s public reaction to 9/11 was a proper one: hope. Not despair, not rage, not shock, but a wounded and tenacious hope. “They can’t shut that down,” he says at one point, referring to the futility of terrorism in trying to undermine the American spirit. That might just be the kernel at the center of all of The Daily Show’s work over the past 16 years.

So gladly ride off to new horizons, Jon. You’ve given us something that neither chaos nor insanity can shut down. You’ve given us hope.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.