There have been a lot of changes in my life over the past decade and a half. Degrees acquired. Vocation discerned. Husband married. Child birthed. Even my spiritual life went through its phases from the evangelical background of my youth to the Anglican identity I now embrace.
But, through it all, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have been there for me. Honestly, it’s a little disturbing now as I reflect on it that Mr. Stewart has been the one consistent cultural touchstone for pretty much my entire adult life. Never having had cable, I used to download torrents of the show. I think I still have some old CDs with TDS coverage of the 2004 US Presidential election stashed away somewhere. Once online streaming became available, Jon Stewart became my daily lunch companion as I caught up on his show from the night before. It would not be a stretch to say that I have seen almost every Daily Show episode broadcast over the last 10 years. It kind of boggles my mind.
In the last 24 hours since Stewart announced he would be stepping down as host of The Daily Show, the internet has issued forth a collective angst-ridden cry of outrage. And I get it. The fact is…I have come to realize something since word leaked out last night. We need Jon Stewart. We really, really need him.
Sure, he might not be perfect. There were times watching his show when I felt like the default audience member he was talking to was a straight white dude, much like himself. And, as a (professional) person of faith, it has sometimes bugged me that the one thing he sometimes didn’t quite get is how religious people think. (This was certainly an area where Stephen Colbert had the advantage). That said, though, I have to applaud Jon Stewart and The Daily Show writers for at least trying to engage with a range of viewpoints and voices. Stewart himself doesn’t speak to issues that specifically concern women. He brings in Kristen Schaal to do that. Or Larry Wilmore to take on racial issues–Wilmore now has his own show as a result of his recurring segment. Most importantly, Stewart created space for people like Asif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj to provide Muslim perspective, without ever marginalizing them. That shouldn’t be understated.
But what is most important–and most necessary–about Jon Stewart’s role in the media is his insistence on pushing the media to be better. His assertion day after day that we can be better and smarter than the 24-hour news media cycle thinks we are. He challenges journalists to be better and he challenges us to demand they give us more depth and substance. For those unfamiliar with The Daily Show it is very easy to write Jon Stewart off as just a liberal comedian, lampooning Sarah Pailin and delighting in a running gag comparing new senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to a turtle (which is, admittedly, hilarious). If Jon Stewart has an enemy, however, it is not the political right. It is the irresponsible, ratings and fear-driven media that propels sound bites over substance and conflict over compromise. Yes, that means Jon Stewart fires a lot of shots at Fox News. But if one is a seasoned fan of his show, you realize he holds the greatest distain for CNN’s tech-heavy, content-light style of reporting. And he has a special level of disgust for MSNBC–which learned all the bad habits of Fox’s highly partisan approach to news without Fox’s quality production values.
It is true. Jon Stewart makes no effort to high his political leanings. But at least he is honest. And when Stewart had Mike Huckabee on his show recently to promote Huckabee’s “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy“, Stewart absolutely challenged the former governor’s arguments. But he also listened to him first and engaged in respectful dialogue, not shouting his own agenda. I know Jon Stewart has long denied that he is a journalist, but that sure seems like journalism to me.
I don’t know what the future is for The Daily Show. I do have hope, at least in the number of satirists Stewart has mentored who continue, for lack of a better image, fighting the good fight. Daily Show alum John Oliver is doing brilliant work with Last Week Tonight, highlighting real injustice or social issues that have been buried under our sensationalist media and bringing them to light with genuine fact and research based comical commentary. It’s brilliant. I am sure in the months to come Stewart and Comedy Central will put an appropriate succession plan in place that will live up to Stewart’s legacy. Because the fact is, we need that voice that is not fear-mongering that is not sensationalist. But that voice which challenges us and our media to have greater integrity. To show respect for one another. And to occasionally call Mitch McConnell a turtle.
So, thank you for all you have done Jon Stewart. And, I hope you will soon be able to take a nap.