Jon Stewart's real legacy: Taking media to task for 'hurting America'
Beloved host to leave The Daily Show later this year
Since Jon Stewart announced he would be leaving The Daily Show, reporters and columnists have been hailing him as one of the pre-eminent political satirists of modern times.
But longtime watchers say his legacy is more complicated, and that the actual target of Stewart's nightly harangues was the media itself.
"I think Jon Stewart's work is often mischaracterized as political satire, when I think it is actually closer to media satire," says Joe Cutbirth, editor-in-chief at the Texas Observer, who once taught a course at the University of British Columbia on satire as news and is writing a book on Stewart's cultural influence.
Cutbirth says more than anything, Stewart "captured this dissatisfaction that Americans had with how they had been getting their news."
On Tuesday, Stewart said that after hosting The Daily Show for 16 years, he would be leaving the nightly political humour show later this year.
In a heartfelt address, Stewart claimed he had no immediate plans, but said, with characteristic cheek, that one of his goals was to be able to have dinner with his family, "whom I've heard, from multiple sources, are lovely people."
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In announcing his departure, the Comedy Central network said that because of Stewart's "unique voice and vision, The Daily Show has become a cultural touchstone for millions of fans and an unparalleled platform for political comedy that will endure for years to come."
'More of an ombudsman'
The 52-year-old Stewart, a former standup comedian who assumed the anchor's chair on The Daily Show in 1999, is often cited as one of America's most trusted newscasters – despite the fact that he hosts a scripted comedy show.
Cutbirth says Stewart isn't a journalist, but rather "more of an ombudsman" who judges the media's coverage of the pressing issues of the day.
Some of his most memorable takedowns were of conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, as well as CNBC business anchor Jim Cramer, whom Stewart accused of providing irresponsible investing advice in the aftermath of the 2009 financial meltdown.
Stewart took on that gatekeeper role, Cutbirth says, because of a sustained period of polarization in U.S. politics over issues such as George W. Bush's presidency, American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and Barack Obama's push for universal health care.
Stewart believed the media exacerbated the political partisanship that characterized those issues, says Cutbirth, and he went about trying to civilize public discourse.
One of his earliest attempts was a 2004 appearance on CNN's Crossfire, which was known for the vitriolic debate between co-hosts Tucker Carlson, who represented the conservative view, and Paul Begala, who was more left-leaning.
Stewart told his hosts that they were "partisan – what do you call it? – hacks" and that their venomous tone was "hurting America." Crossfire was cancelled several months later.
Stewart became successful not only because he filled a void in the political debate, but also because he took advantage of changing news consumption habits, says longtime Canadian TV critic Bill Brioux.
People used to tune into the nightly news for a recap of the day's events, but in the internet age, that news was old by 9 p.m. What Stewart offered was pungent analysis, and viewers tuned in not to learn about what happened, but what Stewart thought of it.
Stewart's engagement with serious social issues is ultimately what set him apart from more traditional, apolitical late-night hosts, Brioux says.
"If you watch Letterman or Leno, the jokes are always about the same five things all the time, because they feel that's all that anybody who's watching has in their head," says Brioux. "Stewart wasn't afraid to lay down a history lesson to develop the conversation."
Brioux says that legacy has been carried on by former Daily Show correspondents Stephen Colbert and John Oliver — the latter now hosts Last Week Tonight, which has gained a reputation for long, scathing, joke-rich segments on seemingly dismal topics such as income inequality, net neutrality and student debt.
There is a long tradition of satire in American culture, from Mark Twain to Will Rogers to Hunter S. Thompson, but Stewart emerged at a time when U.S. media seemed to lack the conviction to take politicians to task, says Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"He must have been really puzzled that the rest of the media was kind of nodding in agreement and letting political figures" engage in spin and self-aggrandizement.
Yet for all of Stewart's efforts to encourage civic engagement, the way he ridiculed modern media "likely contributed to the cynicism of millennials," which were a large part of his audience, says Siemiatycki.
"Stewart, in his career, did at times try to be a rallying force for participation and engagement," he says. "But ironically, more of his message may have been, 'What's the point? The whole thing is either rigged or self-serving or too dumb to bother with.'"