In January 1999, when Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show, we lived under a completely different media landscape. CNN was still the top-rated network, far fewer people took Fox News seriously as a legitimate news source, and MSNBC barely existed. The Daily Show was more topical, less political. It more closely resembled a daily version of SNL‘s “Weekend Update,” with additional segments like “God Stuff” and “Steven vs. Stephen.” In the infancy of Stewart’s Daily Show, they lampooned the style and format of cable news, and it wasn’t until former editor of The Onion, Ben Karlin, came aboard when The Daily Show finally found its voice, and eventually its calling.
Under Stewart and Karlin, The Daily Show made the transition from parody to satire, and along the way, turned its satirical focus from format to content. In CNN and, especially Fox News after 9/11, The Daily Show found a villain, and, in doing so, it also found a mission… to call out the hypocrisy of the media.
Under the guise of being a “comedy show,” The Daily Show acted as a kind of fact checker for the cable-news media or, more accurately, a bullsh*t detector. Stewart surfaced the insidious motivations, he articulated the corporate conflicts, he called out the bias, and he exposed the agendas of the news organizations. In fact, during the early years of Stewart’s Daily Show, he regularly excoriated Fox News for presenting itself as fair and balanced, back when Fox News could still convince some that “fair and balanced” was a legitimate claim.
Stewart’s own motivations were noble. The so-called Fourth Estate had historically provided a public check on the branches of government, but there wasn’t a clear voice to provide a check against the press. That’s where The Daily Show came in. Four nights a week, Stewart would call bullsh*t on how the media covered politics. He’d launch withering attacks on the increasing facileness of CNN’s political coverage, mocking Wolf Blitzer’s droning voice and his softball questions. He’d make fun of CNN’s holograms, their obsession with tracking polls, and he’d call out news organizations for their efforts in being first instead of being correct. He was particularly vicious with Fox News, and he had a steady supply of targets in Glenn Beck, Geraldo Rivera, Bill O’Reilly and even Megyn Kelly (who he once made cry).
Unfortunately, in Stewart’s attempts to act as the cable-news industry’s one-man Internal Affairs unit, he would eventually fail. In fact, the entire mission backfired. Instead of correcting the political biases and the soft-news infotainment programming he fought so hard to call out, these news organizations embraced it. Rather than hide the political agendas that Stewart was so adept at uncovering, they leaned into them. They gave up the any notion of objectivity and transformed themselves into the promotional arms of political parties.
In a way, Fox News’ embrace of the right, MSNBC’s liberal bent, and the BuzzFeed-ification of CNN may have been inevitable, the inexorable eventuality brought about by conglomerations, our desire to hear our own political beliefs reflected back to us in our news coverage, and a shorter attention span ushered in by the internet and social media. Maybe The Daily Show documented that change as much as it forced news organizations into it.
The upside, however, is that — in its nightly persecution of the media — The Daily Show gained an authoritative voice of its own simply by subverting media trends. If CNN was going to present celebrity entertainment as hard news, The Daily Show would present hard news as comedy. In hilariously mocking cable-news coverage, Stewart filtered actual news through his attacks on media coverage. Yes, it came with its own political bent reflecting his liberal sensibilities, but The Daily Show increasingly became the closest thing adults could get to a real civics lesson on television. Without The Daily Show to remind us, we all might have forgotten how politicians are supposed to behave, even when they don’t. Stewart continued to articulate to a generation raised on cable news that what they were witnessing was not actually “news.” It was a news-like substance, and Stewart provided us with a baseline by removing all the chemicals and additives and exposing the truth underneath.
More than that, Stewart has done what so few newsman have been capable of since 1999: He gave the news a human voice. In putting the news in context, Stewart performed a more important service than reflecting back our own political beliefs. He reflected back our own vulnerabilities, our rage, our disgust, our heartbreak, and, ever-so occasionally, our triumphs and joys. Some may decry the fact that a comedy show has become the top source of news for many of us, but I applaud it because The Daily Show has done more than provide us with a daily dose of news and comedy. It has provided us with perspective, compassion, and humanity. While The Daily Show may not have accomplished what it originally set out to do, it achieved something even more important: It made its viewers better people.