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Stewart/Colbert Effect: Jon Stewart's 'The Daily Show' and the Rise of Media Accountability

M. King Adkins

It took 16 years of hard work, but Jon Stewart's The Daily Show finally began to restore something like truth to political and social discourse.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

Airtime: Mondays-Thursdays, 10pm
Cast: Jon Stewart
Network: Comedy Central

Back in the days before 9/11, The Daily Show's opening credits used to end with the phrase: "The most important news show… ever". In the wake of that day's events, the producers removed that tagline, a choice that may seem obvious now, but which nevertheless showed a great deal of tact. Stewart himself went on the air and urged viewers turn to genuine news programming during a time of national crisis, and the tagline never returned.

Now that the Jon Stewart era has come to a close, however, it's worth considering whether perhaps that silly boast might not have contained a grain of truth. For much of the past 16 years, The Daily Show mattered enormously, not merely because night after night it managed to maintain high standards for comedy entertainment, or because for so many of us, it became the only way to consume real headlines in any sort of digestible but credible form. It turns out that while it was poking fun at news programs, it also somehow wound up changing them.

The Daily Show's brilliance under Stewart's direction can be assessed from many perspectives and using any number of different measuring sticks. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, over the course of nearly 2600 episodes, Stewart became "a singularly influential voice in American politics" (6 August 2015). In the UK, The Guardian praised his willingness to speak truth to power: "He pointed out the flaws in their thinking, and would satirize the absurd logical conclusions of their otherwise illogical governing process. That’s what Stewart did for so many: put the world in perspective and showed us that we were not alone" (5 August 2015). Yet for all his sharp political commentary, his barbs always came couched in even sharper comedy. Stewart's a keen student of comedy as well as a serious practitioner, as was apparent any time he invited another comic on the show.

Then there was the talent. How many comedy personalities did he mentor? Lewis Black, Kristen Schaal, Rob Corddry, Nate Corddry, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Larry Wilmore, to name a few. These aren’t the typical SNL alums who graduate into making mid-level comedy films. These are insightful, polished entertainers who also happen to be gifted comedians. They didn't develop those qualities by accident; as Stephen Colbert told Jon Stewart on Stewart's final episode: "We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect".

More than anything else, though, Stewart brought a new level of accountability to public discourse, not seen in America since, well, maybe ever.

A Shifting Media Landscape

To some extent, the show benefited from its arrival at a particular moment in technological and media history. The invention of the camera in the mid-19th century made it possible to "capture" reality; by the mid-'90s, that ability had sped up and multiplied to such an extent that some have argued the "real" world faded into obscurity, replaced by nothing more than an infinite number of empty images, an artificial version of reality. The postmodern world, as it tends to get labeled, had arrived (for pop cultural metaphors for this situation, see The Truman Show [1998] or The Matrix [1999]).

Scholars like to point to Ronald Reagan as the first postmodern president, and it's hard to ignore the symbolism of an actor in the White House (or the fact that Hinkley's assassination attempt -- driven by his obsession with another film star -- aired so many times Reagan could hardly help being reduced to an image). In truth, however, it was Bill Clinton who was first subjected to the kind of public scrutiny made possible by the new media environment. Reagan was a celebrity figure for sure: larger than life in an almost literal sense. By the time Clinton took office, though, it wasn't simply actors who were filmed; it was all of us.

Furthermore, we weren't just being filmed in public; every moment of our lives seemed to wind up on videotape. Don DeLillo, the postmodern novelist, wrote in 1994 -- four years before Monica Lewinsky became a household name -- about children with video cameras, "They will shoot you on the pot if they can manage a suitable vantage" ("Videotape"). It took some time, but eventually every public figure was "caught" in one way or another: Michael Richards, Dave Matthews, Tiger Woods, Miley Cyrus, Mitt Romney. The rest of us followed, our private pictures downloaded and posted to 4Chan or, or sometimes just posted by us.

The Daily Show's brilliance was to turn this new state of affairs to something socially useful. If TMZ and its clones appealed to our baser nature, Stewart's show appealed to something else inside us: our desire for order, honesty, and that very un-postmodern word: truth. Stewart brought videotape to political and social discourse as a means of revealing the truth rather than muddying it. It wasn’t just that he caught absurdities on tape; it was the way he caught obvious contradictions or politicians of every political stripe shamelessly pandering to one crowd or another. How many times did he juxtapose clips with one another, puncturing a public figure's flip-flop or claims of "I never said that," as he did multiple times skewering multiple targets in this clip from 2010 about the supposed "Ground Zero Mosque"?

Few others had thought to use media in this way, as a check on reality. As a comedy bit, it never grew stale; as news, it changed the public discourse.

Holding the Press Accountable

Often Stewart’s best critique was reserved for other news programs. The original, Craig Kilborn version of the show was something like an extended version of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update"; it was Stewart who pushed the show to be a broader satire of news shows in general. Fox was a frequent target, of course, but only because they made the job so easy. Stewart’s feud with Tucker Carlson of CNN's Crossfire was national news in 2004. Ultimately, The Daily Show demonstrated the shortcomings of every news program. As the nightly news became less engaged in the search for the truth and more engaged in human interest stories, The Daily Show shifted from satirizing their shortcomings to pointing them out (27 January 2014).

Perhaps the most egregious of these shortcomings is an unwillingness to confront politicians with their own rhetoric. Where a typical news show might let a guest dodge a difficult question and fall back on a talking point, Stewart was insistent on confronting lazy arguments with experts, as in the case of his interview with U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who tried to use Abraham Lincoln to justify the president's unwillingness to listen to outsiders. On the next night’s show, Stewart called Doris Kearns Goodwin, an historical expert on Lincoln who had recently published the acclaimed Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, to clear up the matter.

It took some time -- Stewart confronted politicians with the record (particularly the video record) for 16 years -- but his approach does seem to be catching on in some corners of the journalism community. In the last cycle of presidential debates, for instance, Candy Crawly pointedly corrected Mitt Romney in his claim about President Obama's statements in the wake of the attack on the American embassy in Libya (16 October 2012).

While her response was not quite as clever or even as media savvy as is routine for The Daily Show, it nevertheless demonstrated that someone, somewhere in the news industry has begun to consider the possibility that truth might be something we can document. So too the post-debate "fact-checking" articles that appear these days in most newspapers.

We can't deny our past actions or words any more. (If he no longer represents anything else, Bill Cosby is still an excellent representative of that.) We all recognize that we live in a very different world, a world where we just don’t know who might be filming us with a cell phone -- or a drone -- at any given moment. In many ways, that’s a scary prospect. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, though, managed to make something honest and good of the situation: a push for honesty, truth, and accountability.

Mark my words: the day will come when politicians show up to debates with a screen behind them and a series of rebuttal clips already prepared. When that level of honest discourse arrives, we’ll have Jon Stewart to thank.

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