Editorial: As Life Imitated Stewart…
UPDATED 2/13/15 8:55PM: For grammar.
Yesterday Jon Stewart announced that he was leaving his show. Analysts and pundits have been discussing and dissecting this ad infinitum in the hours since leaving almost no point or thought unvisited in his impending departure’s wake.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is at its heart a comedy show, but as many have observed, it was also a tremendous vehicle for media criticism and tough interviews. A critical stop for politicians and pundits passing through Gotham, Stewart’s program was a forum for questions that, too often, the media seemed incapable of articulating.
Clearly a political liberal, Stewart nevertheless held his fire for nobody, perhaps contributing to the downfall of a Democratic cabinet secretary while regularly lampooning the endless material Fox News and conservative media churned out.
The power and effectiveness of Stewart’s satire and comedic timing cannot be understated. Through years of stand up and other venues, he had honed a true skill. But humor and art more broadly, is a wonderful way to comment on and hold up the mirror to society—its politics, business and more.
In our estimate, the biggest loss will be the media criticism, which really took off for Stewart following the American Fourth Estate’s epic fail on the Iraq War. Whether you parse former President George W. Bush’s rally to war as “lies” or a more basic indifference to how sloppy the intelligence was, the accountability system the First Amendment envisions failed—miserably.
How Stewart turned that accountability on the media as a whole—not just Fox News and its ilk however deserving—was best encapsulated on Monday’s show, when Stewart critiqued the media’s obsession with Brian Williams while failing to note their own, more significant failures. Indeed, the news of Williams’s 6 month (or permanent?) suspension, could not have been better timed to Stewart’s own news.
What we fear in losing Stewart is whether the next person will be able to do the same. We certainly hope so, because all big organizations, but especially media and government, must face the uncomfortable truths of their decisions from time to time.
This became more critical in a changing media landscape when budgets are thin and the incentives all bend away from the expensive, investigatory news that makes a functioning democracy possible.
It is especially salient in our own Valley, where the media has not always done its job. Both economic and too often personal pressures have both stymied investigations and helped conceal stories news executives’ friends might find embarrassing, perhaps changing the tide of history for the worse.
No media organization, including this one, is blameless in making mistakes or failing to call out those made by others. Nor are we singling out any news organization in particular for failure, but both The Reminder and especially The Valley Advocate, to their credit, have offered some local media criticism.
By contrast, while Stewart’s criticism of the media may not have always changed it (certainly Fox News continues to delve deeper down its own GI tract), it held a mirror up to them. It forced news organizations (and politicians) to face their own rhetoric and behavior, usually juxtaposed against a diametrically opposed statements he, she, it or they had uttered only a short time before—or after.
A probing journalist, if properly motivated and secure in themselves and their job, can ask the tough questions Stewart did. Certainly, the media itself has great media analysts and reports. Despite its recent gutting, The New York Times maintains a feisty media desk. NPR’s David Folkenflik is an expert on Murdoch. CNN’s Brian Stelter, when not overcome by the limitations of cable news theatrics, remains as good as ever. Locally, David Bernstein, even from afar in Virginia, persistently sought a straight answer out of The Boston Globe’s parent company following a flap at boston.com.
It would be too harsh to say such media figures cannot hold the mirror up to their colleagues or themselves, but they simply do not do it in the same way as Stewart did. Whoever Stewart’s successor is, we hope they can do so in their own way, if not identically. Whatever Stewart does next, we hope we continue to see him contributing to the conversation as effectively, if not as prominently as before.