The news this week has been, for worse and better, more about those who read it on-air than the usual fare of armed conflicts, dickering politicians, and reports that sometimes it snows a heckuva lot in February. Tragically, CBS correspondent Bob Simon died in an automobile accident, NBC anchor Brian Williams stepped into a big, steaming pile of his own unwarranted, fabrications-based narcissism, and comedian Jon Stewart announced he’d abandon his berth at the faux-news desk on Comedy Central later this year.
This last prompted email news alerts from such media stalwarts as the New York Times, because, you know, the Gray Lady is like, you know, so culturally relevant, right? Not that I’m asserting Stewart stepping down isn’t news per se, just that it’s something you’d expect to hear first from Mario Lopez’s outfit before a Breaking News notification from one of the world’s most respected news sources before a follow-up article the next day in the fish wrap’s entertainment section.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Jon Stewart can be a hoot when he’s not being annoyingly smug and self-righteous and twisting the facts for an easy partisan chortle. For the most part, however, he comes across as a likeable fella who is whip-smart, well-intentioned (noting the dangers of this last as too-often paving stones to Hades), and prone to prioritizing his family over his enormously successful career as a television talking head (less successful, thus far, as a film director).
His writers and fellow on-air comedic performers helped earn Stewart accolades by providing him with crisp, often snarky, and ironic commentary in the first instance and sometimes wonderful—albeit completely cut from whole cloth—foils in the second. (Larry Wilmore’s hilariously and astutely explaining to Stewart why a certain racial epithet shouldn’t be excised from Huckleberry Finn immediately comes to mind as perhaps the most insightful 10 minutes of televised humor of the past decade.)
If I have any problems with Stewart’s tenure as host of The Daily Show, it’s his eagerness to play both sides of the fence according to his own convenience, much like the rise of the Internet trolls of the past few years. He can viciously attack those with whom he disagrees and humiliate them with impunity under the cloak of comedy much like trolls rely on anonymity, but, as correctly pointed out by Tucker Carlson in 2004, he also is inclined to “sniffing the throne” of those with whom he’s politically aligned.
When this inconsistency is pointed out, Stewart hides behind a comedic smirk to say he’s not beholden to any concept of journalistic integrity because his job is solely to be funny, after which he continues to cock a snoot at conservatives while mollycoddling progressives. Granted, some of his targets indeed are devoid of clothing and therefore deserve the unmasking, but there are times when Stewart’s treatment is merely cruel, and it is almost invariably strictly partisan. In addition, his skills as an interviewer have repeatedly proven inferior to those of, say, Stephen Colbert.
In closing, it should be noted that many in the media take it as a given that a portion of the population has relied heavily on Stewart to keep them abreast of current events. If that is true, Stewart cannot be held accountable for this perceived travesty any more than the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” sketches of Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, and Jane Curtin in the 1970s represent the advent of faux news for comedic purposes. (For that honor, I’d direct readers to begin with the brilliance of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, but perhaps that merely establishes me as a relic of an era long past, by cracky.)
To borrow a phrase from a play set in another civilization seemingly destined to collapse: the fault, dear Brutus, for taking comedy as a reliable news source lies not in our television stars that report on and mock our culture, but in ourselves.