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Reflections on Jon Stewart

JON-STEWARTBY Tony Palmeri

Jon Stewart recently announced that he will be leaving the Daily Show at the end of the year. For the millennial generation, Stewart’s departure must feel similar to what their grandparents felt when Walter Cronkite retired from CBS: sadness at the stepping down of a man perceived by them as trustworthy and honest. As a college teacher in the area of Communication Studies who works primarily with 18-22 year olds, I can testify that classroom clips of Stewart get a kind of appreciation from students that I never see after clips from “serious” correspondents like Scott Pelley, Brian “Tall Tale” Williams, David Muir, or any of the bloviators over at CNN, Fox, and MSNBC.

My own view of Jon Stewart changes depending on what critical hat I’m wearing. In the remainder of this rant I will reflect on Stewart from three perspectives: teacher, media critic, and citizen.

As a teacher, I should probably send Stewart a “thank-you” note. Some of my classes deal with practical communication issues: how to recognize and critique established issue frames, how to support claims with sound evidence and argument, how to recognize and expose reasoning fallacies in political argument, and how to develop irony and other “extraordinary” uses of language. The Daily Show’s been a gold mine of illustrations for all that and more.

As a media critic, I’ve appreciated Stewart’s brutally amusing takedowns of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and indeed all of the establishment lapdog media. Unlike CNN’s Reliable Sources, and Fox’s MediaBuzz, both of which pretend to give viewers sophisticated analyses of media machinations but usually end up as little more than “insider baseball” shop talk, Stewart’s media criticism reduces the media giants to the absurdity that they’ve become. His insightful critique of the 24 hour news cycle in “CNN Leaves it There” and his reduction of Fox to the “lupus of news” in “Bernie Goldberg Fires Back” will remain as classic critiques of what passes for “news” on the cable channels. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Stewart revealed a keen awareness of Fox’s formula for success: “They’ve delegitimized the idea of editorial authority while exercising incredible editorial authority” he mused. He went on to claim, quite accurately, that Fox expertly turns criticism of their programming into “persecution.”

Lest you think, as many on the right do, that Stewart is somewhat of a “leftist,” the interview with Maddow as well as his “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in 2010 left no doubt that Stewart sees himself as “in the stands” watching all sides as opposed to playing on the field alongside a team. He also had a well publicized verbal skirmish with the NYT’s Paul Krugman a few years back (Krugman is probably the most liberal op-ed writer working in a mainstream news source.). Stewart’s dogged tendency to take shots at both right and left is, I think, less about being perceived as “fair” and more about wanting to remain independent. To me he seems mindful of the late satirist Frank Zappa’s admonition that (I’m paraphrasing here) “the right wants to shut you down and the left wants to use you.” As someone who’s been criticized by both of the “official” sides over the years, I can identify with where Stewart is coming from.

I’m most critical of Jon Stewart when I put on the citizen cap. My thinking in this area has been influenced by a wonderfully provocative piece of scholarship (published 2007 in Critical Studies in Media Communication) by political communication professor Roderick Hart and University of Texas at Austin doctoral student Johanna Hartelius. Their essay “The Political Sins of Jon Stewart” argues that a proper understanding of the nature of Stewart’s cynicism leads to the conclusion that the Daily Show does not defend or support “small d” democratic values and maybe succeeds in undermining them.

Hart and Hartelius claim that Stewart’s brand of cynicism, which has been around for ages but gains particular potency in the television era, works against the idea that people can come together to solve problems. They write: “Real politics is hard, frustrating work. Instead of wrestling with such matters, cynics like Jon Stewart teach us how to cop an attitude. Why is copping an attitude now such an obsession? Because with television we can all be young, clever…and lazy. Cynics place faith in observation, not participation, and see irony as the only stable source of pleasure.” In support of the authors I can offer only anecdotal evidence: more often than not, the biggest fans of Stewart that I deal with either (a) have no interest in working with established organizations to participate in finding solutions to problems or (b) do participate but use Stewart merely as a form of “gotcha” to knock down their real or perceived opponents. In other words, they double down on the cynicism.

Cynicism is sure profitable: the day after Stewart’s stepping down announcement reports surfaced that Viacom stocks lost $350 million in value. My own cynicism informs me that a comedy that did engage participation in the manner suggested by Hart and Hartelius would not make it through the corporate cable TV censors. Who knows, maybe Stewart freed from corporate constraints will become an activist comedian in the Dick Gregory mold.

Tony Palmeri (palmeri.tony@gmail.com) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh.

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