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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jon Stewart
July 30, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 4 comments

I come neither to praise Jon Stewart nor to bury him. Many have done the former, and Fox News seems only too happy to do the latter.

It’s worth noting, though, that in all the praise and accolades being showered on the artist formerly known as Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, not everyone was, or is, a fan.

Despite the 18 and counting Emmy Awards, and despite The Daily Show’s longevity — more than 2,600 episodes, spread over some 16 years — Stewart struck some of his critics as being glib, condescending and insufferably smug on occasion. For a show billed as a “fake news” program, The Daily Show took itself really seriously on occasion.

In his time poking fun at media giants, Stewart earned a hard-won and well-deserved reputation for wit and a keen, penetrating mind, even if his interviews tended to ramble on at times — so long that viewers were often encouraged to log onto Comedy Central’s web site if they wanted to see the entire interview. Five-minute questions, punctuated by self-referential, aren’t-I-clever giggles, will do that, especially when relegated to the back third of a program designed to run no more than 23 minutes, including titles.

Over the years, as more and more media pundits started to take The Daily Show seriously, Stewart began to believe his own press, despite the occasional brushback from a bemused former fan. The remarkable thing is how few of Stewart’s chosen comedy victims chose to hit back. So when the New York Times’ Paul Krugman accused Stewart of mental, political and professional laziness in an excoriating 2013 column in the Times, the roles were reversed: Krugman was suddenly David, the little guy, taking on Goliath, the motormouth giant of the media left.

(Personal disclosure: I’m a fan of Krugman, if not always a fan of Stewart. I’m not a Teabagger — or Tea Party enthusiast, to be less colloquial. I was, however, denounced once by Newsbusters, because I had the temerity to ask Seth MacFarlane if he had ever considered stepping in for Bill Maher on Real Time, the same way, say, John Oliver stepped in for Stewart on Daily Show in the summer of 2013. So I suppose my liberal cred, or bias depending on which side of the divide you look at it, is now a matter of public record.)

Krugman was — and remains — one of the few noteworthy figures on the left to even consider taking on the almighty arbiter of the media rights-and-wrongs.

“Yes, it’s a comedy show,” Krugman wrote, “but the jokes are supposed to be (and usually are) knowing jokes, which are funny and powerful precisely because the Daily Show people have done their homework and understand the real issues better than the alleged leaders spouting nonsense. In this case, however, it’s obvious that nobody at TDS spent even a few minutes researching the topic. It was just yuk-yuk-yuk they’re talking about a trillion-dollar con hahaha.

“Hey, if we want this kind of intellectual laziness, we can just tune into Fox.”

As to why Krugman didn’t simply tell Stewart as much, in person, on his show, Krugman replied that first he had to be invited, “which hasn’t happened since, I think, 2005.”

For me, a career journalist who worked for several years in general assignment on a big-city newspaper-of-record, after being assigned to the sports section — the toy department — and before being assigned to the entertainment department — the arts-and-crafts section — it always bothered me that Stewart passed judgment on correspondents trying, in a lot of cases, to simply do their jobs, under often trying circumstances.

When once, at a Television Critics Association get-together, I asked Stewart in person how he answered his more sober-minded detractors, he replied with his standard, default, “I’m a comedian, not a [reporter/journalist]” line.

Anything and everything is fair game to a comedian, true. When the subject turns to something as serious and deadly as war, though — and how foreign correspondents report the news from a war zone, under often bloody, brutalizing conditions — hiding behind the “I’m a comedian shield” seems a little, dare I say it, feeble.

Long before his 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Stewart was adept at playing the game of having it both ways.

On this solemn, somber occasion of Stewart’s passing the flame to Trevor Noah (left), though, no one wants to think all the way back to 2013, let alone 2010. As for 2005 — God forbid.

So I’ll focus on a Daily Show interview from April, in which Stewart, as many bloggers gleefully recounted the morning after, gave former New York Times investigative reporter Judith Miller the hiding of her life. “This interview is more proof why Jon Stewart will be missed,” one viewer commented on Comedy Central’s website.

Speaking for myself, though — and perhaps only myself — this interview simply underscored every doubt I ever had about Jon Stewart the Comedy Guy, or even Stewart as the gracious, even-tempered host of a late-night fake-news comedy program.

What others saw as a richly deserved takedown of a too-big-for-her-britches news reporter who hastened an entire nation into war through sloppy reporting — for the national newspaper of record, no less — I saw the host of late-night TV’s most respected, award-recognized comedy show abuse his guest with almost breathtaking snideness and condescension.

Whatever Miller’s failings as a reporter — and I would rather leave that to a working journalist-editor or one of her Times colleagues than a late-night comedian to decide — Stewart was in no mood to listen to her explanations.

Stewart tells jokes for a living. He’s never once had to write, edit and file a coherent, readable story, fact-checked, annotated and properly sourced, on deadline, for a credible, mainstream news organization that both influences public opinion in its home nation and is read around the world. Stewart has never understood the work involved in cultivating a source and learning to trust that source, even when the evidence appears to lean the other way.

Where I — or, I would like to think, any working journalist — would have followed up Miller’s explanation, “This is what I was told,” with, “Do you think they believed that themselves at the time or, in hindsight, do you think they were playing you?” Stewart instead rushed to judgment, quick to parcel out the blame and unwilling to listen to reasonable explanations. No journalist is privy to the inner workings of the CIA or NSA — you probably wouldn’t want to know them if they were — and the old Washington Post rule of verifying a scoop with at least two independent, unrelated sources is not always feasible when dealing with the security services.

The video is readily accessible on YouTube (CNN clip version below) and Comedy Central; see for yourself the way he cuts her off, rolls his eyes, says things like “A reporter’s job is not to be frightened” — says a man who has never once been shot at with live ammunition in a war zone — and showers her with glib, condescending bromides like, “I believe that you helped the administration take us to the most devastating place in foreign policy that we’ve made in, like, 100 years — but you seem lovely.”

That last one bothered me the most — Stewart capped a serious accusation with a smarmy, condescending walk-back that was as sexist as it was snide. Would he have tried a line like that with Bill O’Reilly? Glenn Beck? Rush Limbaugh?  

There’s a lot I enjoyed about Stewart over the years, more moments than I can remember where I laughed myself silly, or smiled knowingly at a deft turn of phrase and perfectly timed quip. TV was a better place with The Daily Show in it, and most nights Stewart was up to the task of being a funny, reliable front man. I enjoyed it as entertainment.

So when it did turn serious, it became deadly — in a way Stephen Colbert assiduously and scrupulously avoided. Perhaps that’s why, toward the end, The Colbert Report was consistently the sharper, funnier, more creative of the two shows.

I’ll miss Stewart. But I won’t canonize him.

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It's interesting to read a contrary opinion on Jon Stewart and his departure from The Daily Show, but to claim that he's "never once had to write, edit and file a coherent, readable story, fact-checked, annotated and properly sourced, on deadline, ... that both influences public opinion in its home nation and is read around the world", well, that's exactly what he does, except that he uses video instead of print. Twenty three (or more) minutes a day, four days a week, and his name's on the marquee if his team of "editors" and "fact checkers" screw up. His program is viewable around the world via the magic of the Internet, and will be archived for historians far into the future. It's maybe not a "mainstream" news organization, but have you read the output of some of those publications lately? He may have been snide and condescending to Judith Miller, but if Ms. Miller had done her job instead of sucking up to the neocons, she wouldn't have so richly deserved his (and our) scorn.
Aug 1, 2015   |  Reply
(That was *exactly* 1000 characters. Damn, I hate that limitation.)
Aug 1, 2015
The IRONY that Jon leaves the very day of the 1st Rep debate....The first election in years w/o his take on the process!!
Jul 31, 2015   |  Reply
Mark Isenberg
The beauty of the Daily Show created by two women,remember?,is that it was never about Jon Stewart but the reporters playing with Jon like Samantha Bee,Jason Jones,Larry Wilmore,some guy named Oliver and the new guy named Trevor. As long as the writers are clever and reporters are willing to travel and spoof our local and national politicians,the Show will be fine and Stewart will be a welcome guest or if he just wants to direct an occasional film.But,the Judith Miller skewering was deserved and just try to watch her now as a Fox News contributor. She did a major disservice to the NY Times,Journalism and thinks she got a raw deal. Thank You Daily Show with Mr. Stewart.Onward.
Jul 31, 2015   |  Reply
In 2012 I wrote my own blog thoughts on Jon Stewart and the time I was in the audience for The Daily Show. I will update it one more time before his finale show. Sarah Watches For You!: 10 years ago today...first drafted 2012,updated 20... http://sarahwatches4u.blogspot.com/2012/06/0-years-ago-today.html?spref=tw
Jul 31, 2015   |  Reply
I meant

Jul 31, 2015
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