(Stop) Watching Jon Stewart

by by by Stephen Carmody

illustration by by Robert Sandler

People should probably stop watching Jon Stewart. The Daily Show on Comedy Central has been self-described on numerous occasions as “throwing spitballs” from the back of the room of American politics. This pronounced separation from the political debate has exonerated Stewart (at least in his mind) from being pegged simply as a partisan, or simply as a news source: he’s a comedian doing fake news. Stewart places those who wish to criticize him in a tricky spot: to take a court jester too literally, or to not listen for the hidden message, is to become a fool oneself. But perhaps the difficulty falls most on Jon Stewart’s young, liberal-minded audience who have honed their critique of national politics on The Daily Show. For good or bad, Jon Stewart has altered the political consciousness of a generation of viewers  who cannot all be court jesters.


In the 2008 New York Times article “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” Michiko Kakutani noted that a huge number of liberal Americans watch Jon Stewart, often for political news. Further, a Pew poll found Jon Stewart to be the fourth most admired journalist in America. As Kakutani points out, the power of The Daily Show comes from the “deconstructions” performed during each half hour.

Take the episode from October 18 in which Stewart spends eight minutes picking apart Eric Cantor, Republican House Majority Leader. Stewart turns to his audience and remarks, “tonight I want to talk about something serious,” barely able to hold a straight face. The audience is already cackling: they know the joke that’s coming. Beside a graphic of “Scorn in the USA,” Stewart announces that there is a battle for the soul of America’s democracy. Clips run, mostly of Cantor, but also of conservative figureheads like Newt Gingrich and Allen West, urging Americans to “take to the streets to take this country back.” These clips all come from 2009 and 2010, the advent of the Tea Party. But then, after introducing the Occupy Movement, Cantor is quoted again, this time from October 7, 2011: “I, for one, am concerned with the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and other cities across this country.”

Stewart stares at the camera, as if shocked. Playing dumb, Stewart asks why this protest is any different. The answer, from the next waterfall of clips, is that Republicans feel that the Occupy movement is pitting Americans against Americans. And when Cantor accuses “some in this town [Washington]” of supporting protest against other Americans, Stewart can only yell incredulously, “Yeah! It was you! When was that? It was a minute ago, remember?” The 2009 Cantor runs again. After highlighting that 74 percent of Americans are in favor of raising taxes on the rich, a goal of the Occupy protests, Stewart triumphantly concludes, in a mock address to Cantor: “It’s gotta be tough to love America so much, and hate almost three-quarters of the people living in it.”

It may not be that all Republicans see unions, liberals, poor people, and progressives as enemies of America. It doesn’t matter whether the political discontent of the Tea Party can be compared to that of the Occupy movement. Rather, Stewart’s point was to portray Cantor as a hypocrite for denouncing what he had earlier said. The hypocrisy arises from a fundamental difference in perspective between liberals and conservatives. Both sides do not hear each other, which leads to the “echo chamber” of our political discourse. Jon Stewart has been performing this very same deconstruction of national politics for years (in the segment after commercial, he will ridicule Occupy Wall Street for its distasteful public image). It is funny, widely effective, and leads to a similar set of conclusions: political figures and pundits are inflammatory, hypocritical, and detached from reality.


As someone in his early twenties, the raising of my political consciousness came about with a series of psychological events: the central trauma of September 11, the post-traumatic stress of the Bush administration and two foreign wars, and the depression that is the Obama administration. I glanced over newspapers, flipped on television news, and tuned into the radio. But they didn’t guide me through the past decade. Instead, the scene was weekday nights at 11 o’clock: my parents and I gathered around the television set, usually with bowls of ice cream in our laps, and devoured Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in January of 1999. He revised Craig Kilborn’s half-hour of celebrity potshots to a locus of critique on politics and national media. At the time, Jon Stewart was a youthful, dark-haired anchor in an over-sized suit. In the 12 years since, he has aged in a way I can only compare to the aging of America’s presidents: expedited graying and wrinkles borne of stress and responsibility.

Stewart, now 48, is only nine years younger than my parents. Recently, some of my parents’ friends were visiting, and I sat in a dining room in Watertown, MA, listening to liberals discussing national politics. It was almost as if Jon Stewart—along with David Brooks, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, and the rest of the New York Times’ Op-Ed staff—was sitting alongside us in the room. Arguments I had mostly read about filtered into a space filled with nodding heads.

That cathartic feeling—the same one felt when Jon Stewart stares incredulously at the camera or bellows to the heavens—resonated as the parents recounted the ways in which conservatives have blatantly distorted the truth. It’s the claim to the truth that makes me uneasy. I was left with one unanswerable question: “Are there things we liberals say that conservatives, from their opposite vantage point, could rightly point out as blatant distortion of the truth?”


Recently, Cornell West and Tavis Smiley appeared on the O’Reilly Factor, to promote Smiley’s new PBS documentary on poverty in America.  Bill O’Reilly begins the segment with “the facts,” noting how 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, how 9 percent of Americans suffer from substance dependency, and how many drug-addicts cannot make a living. O’Reilly poses poverty as “not exclusively an economic problem” to be handled by the government, but also a “personal responsibility problem.”

West responds (in a narrative similar to the Occupy message) that the top 1% have disproportionately gained wealth, have crippled the US Treasury with the bail-out, and have generally been “too greedy.” Smiley notes that poverty may be a social problem, but this debate is about justice, rather than demonizing the poor. The whole segment eventually runs haywire, with both sides interrupting each other constantly, and West and Smiley erupting in outcry when O’Reilly injects that the bankers “didn’t violate any laws!” Neither side heard the other.

The divide between liberals and conservatives seems to be whether you believe in social justice or not. Institutional injustice (including racism, classism, and economic injustice) is so difficult to comprehend because its complexity far outstrips any political narrative. So responses to it usually look to place the blame on someone or something. Conservatives mostly favor a narrative of personal choice and responsibility. It goes well with a stress on civil liberties and the American can-do attitude. So in the case of poverty, it’s the fault of the poor person.

The agents responsible in the liberal narrative, are the CEOs of Goldmann-Sachs and the like. But bringing them to justice based on who made what decision will not fundamentally change the situation. No group of leaders ever got together in a room to maniacally construct an unjust system in the US. Leaders just tried their best, based on their own ideas and perspectives. Unjust systems are so over-determined, and yet the winners and losers seem so obvious. A narrative of these figures being greedy, or being racist, or being stupid, does not hold up (there’s a reason many radical liberals fall prey to conspiracy theories). And this liberal discontent with the unjust system does not translate to a conservative language. In part, this is what Stewart draws attention to every weekday: Cantor’s “take back democracy” does not mean Occupy’s “take back democracy.” Stewart is right in defining just how wide this gap is across which we try to speak.


But Jon Stewart has also delivered a narrative of politicians’ hypocrisies with such neatness and triumph that his viewers tend to accept the narrative wholesale. It’s not that Cantor is a hypocrite, or is too narrow-minded to understand liberal protest. Rather, Jon Stewart’s viewers are convinced that all politicians and pundits are hypocritical and narrow-minded. The Daily Show’s waterfall of clips blurs all conservatives (or all liberals) into one talking mouth.

Listening to liberals talk about conservatives, I do not hear much generosity. Watching Jon Stewart has become so easy. Viewers don’t have to listen anymore. And they end up seeing the same thing in everything. The people responsible for this political mess seem so clear, frustration can only be salved at eleven o’clock on weeknights, and we cannot say much new.

STEPHEN CARMODY B ’12 is going to watch Colbert instead.