Media, Politics

Jon Stewart: America’s straight-shooting son of satire

Jon Stewart: America’s straight-shooting son of satire

He out-Becked Glenn Beck at his own game. His Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday drew more than 200,000 people, far outnumbering Beck, and focused the world’s attention on the destructive nature of polemic politics and the fear-mongering of US cable-channel “journalism”.  By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Jon Stewart’s watershed moment came at The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday, where 200,000 people gathered at the event, hosted by Stewart and Stephen Colbert (a former “Daily Show” colleague now with his own political satire show on the same network) at the National Mall, near the Capitol Building in Washington DC. To be clear, there were technically two rallies on Saturday; Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and Stephen Colbert’s ironic Rally to Restore Fear. The New York Times reported the rally as an opportunity for those frustrated by angry, “shouty” populism to take control of the political narrative, if only for one afternoon. “It was a Democratic rally without a Democratic politician, featuring instead two political satirists, Stewart and Colbert, who used the stage to rib journalists and fear-mongering politicians, and to argue with each other over the songs ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Crazy Train’.”

Photo: Some 200,000 gathered to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall in Washington October 30, 2010. REUTERS/Molly Riley

It was an antithesis to Fox News’ leading showman Glenn Beck’s religiously-flavoured Rally to Restore Honour two months ago at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC (significantly at the opposite end of the National Mall). Beck claimed his rally was not politically aligned, but put paid to that claim by inviting Sarah Palin to speak. His rally was also heavily attended by the right-wing Tea Party movement. Stewart echoed the same claim about Saturday’s rally, but clearly leaned to the left when he spoke. Many of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear attendees were liberal.

Some of the people at the rally interpreted it to be an anti-Fox News initiative, staging protests near the Fox News van and brandishing signs with Glenn Beck’s name crossed out in red.

By not plugging any political figure or donning the mantle of partisan politics, Stewart left himself with one machine to rage against: the media. Much of the “Daily Show’s” fodder is ludicrous media coverage that exaggerates fear instead of providing clarity, and they were not spared by Stewart on Saturday. Stewart’s closing remarks bear repeating verbatim.

Photo: Performers sing on stage during the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington October 30, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

“This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear,” he said. “They are and we do. But we live now in hard times ? not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.

“But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.

“The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen ? or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

“If we amplify everything we hear nothing.”

But who is this man and how did he come to exercise so much influence over America’s public consciousness?

In a 2008 article, The New York Times asked, “Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?”  A compelling question from the world’s leading broadsheet about a satirist who once described his job as “throwing spitballs”. It said of Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central, “It’s been more than eight years since ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’ made its first foray into presidential politics with the presciently named Indecision 2000, and the difference in the show’s approach to its coverage then and now provides a tongue-in-cheek measure of the show’s striking evolution.”

The Daily Show’s correspondent Steve Carell couldn’t get off the press overflow-bus following Senator John McCain around the country on his 1999 Republican primaries campaign tour, and onto the actual “Straight Talk Express”, where all the big boys were. Jump to 27 October 2010, where President Barack Obama made an episode-long stop at the “Daily Show’s” Manhattan studio primarily to defend his record as leader of the country. Do we need say how big a deal that is?

Describing itself as a show “unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy”, the programme (which Stewarts co-produces and co-writes) sits just behind the news networks, who they lovingly describe as “big network suits and the smaller, chattier suits on cable news”, not-so-gently pointing out the absurdity and madness of the way the news is presented these days.

Watch: Stewart & Colbert dicsuss their rally (AP)

They call themselves “the sharpest, most incisive satire of politics and the media on television”. And Stewart and the rest of his team are funny. Very funny. The show’s research is phenomenal. One of their favourite features is showing a politician who says one thing, and playing a clip next of the same politician, saying the exact opposite thing at some point in the past. Some of the humour may be from the playground, but it works. It ridicules. It punches pompous airbags and brings glistening ivory towers down in a heap of rubble. And like all good comedy, it cuts to the heart of the matter, and ultimately exposes stupidity or hypocrisy.

After graduating from the College of William and Mary with a degree in psychology in 1984, Stewart had a low-key career on the comedy circuit and several lukewarm Comedy Central and HBO shows, before he took over from Craig Kilborn as the anchor (or “fake news anchor”) of the “Daily Show” in 1999, and the show quickly became a sensation, in 2001 garnering Stewart the first of 13 Emmy Awards. The “Daily Show’s” meteoric rise owes a lot to the nous of silver-maned, 47-year-old Stewart who can smell crap from a mile away, and twist it into a very humorous and sharply critical television show.

Much like the court jester of yore, Stewart gets to say things others wouldn’t dare utter by lacing them with humour and affording himself deniability by saying he is primarily in the business of entertainment and not news reporting. In today’s media climate, where perspective and clarity have become such rare commodities, Stewart has become king among the commentators, for the right reasons. The heavyweight website rated him their Most Influential Man of 2010. “Our national satirist, he fills a role that emerges only in rare circumstances, when a political system is chock-full of problems and too many serious commentators shirk their obligations,” said. 

Geoffrey Baym, media studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, said to The Washington Post, “Stewart resonates… with people who are fed up with the polemical aspects of national affairs. He’s reaching a watershed moment.”

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Jon Stewart during a break in the taping of an interview for the Daily Show in Washington, October 27, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

Stewart has gone far beyond the silly gags and laugh-a-minute sensibilities of television satire to become the main voice of reason and sanity in America, amid a steady erosion of those very values within the media.

The major news networks were perhaps unsurprisingly dismissive of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. The New York Times called it “part circus, part satire, part parade” and focused on the entertainment aspect of the rally. They grudgingly admitted it was a political movement of considerable force, but sidelined Stewart’s criticism of their stance on the news. In fact, National Public Radio advised its journalists to stay away from the rally, a move which drew stinging criticism from Colbert and the people on the ground, who felt they were being patronised by the media organisation.

Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor and director at the interactive journalism programme at the City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism, speaking to the media organisation which had banned its journalists from the rally, said, “Damn it, every one of the journalists on those staffs could have learned a great deal today. But they weren’t allowed to. Because that’s not officially journalistic. Well, once again, Jon Stewart proved to be closer to the public than the journalists charged with serving them. That’s why we trust him and not you, media people.”

That is exactly why Stewart has become a media critic (even if he denies the role) and opinion shaper like no other: People trust him. They trust him to cut through the crap, the media’s fear-mongering and the obfuscation of news analysis. They trust him to out politicians who lie. They trust him to be smarter and sharper than everyone else reporting the news. And so far he’s been all that.

It wouldn’t do you any good to be in Jon Stewart’s sights, but if you find yourself on the receiving end of his acerbic wit, you probably fully deserve it. DM

Read more: Washington Post,  “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” at The New York Times, Business Insider,, President Obama on the Daily Show, The Colbert Nation, and if you fancy a laugh, The 100 Best Signs at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Main photo: Jon Stewart (R) and Stephen Colbert sing during the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Washington Mall, October 30, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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