Looking back, it almost seemed inevitable. When Jon Stewart took a hiatus in the summer of 2013 to direct his first motion picture, Rosewater, and John Oliver took the reins of the show, I had already begun to question Stewart’s long-term future with the show.
I was a long-time fan of his. I remember his commentary upon his return to broadcast after 9/11 as a fundamental voice helping aid a damaged country, trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy in a period of absolute chaos. I remember his excellent and systematic deconstruction of the CNN show Crossfire – a moment where his influence was so wide-reaching that it ultimately ended the program. I remember his long and much needed interview with Jim Cramer, the justly maligned host of CNBC’s Mad Money. The introspection Cramer went through in that 20 minutes was so perfectly attune to what the country needed as it grappled with its financial crisis. I marched on the National Mall for the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, the so-called purposeless rally to placate the Tea Party madness that had occupied the same space a few months prior. Stewart and co-host Colbert received a few punches from both progressives and conservatives; however, to those of us who were there, we were happy to represent the voice of the middle. The voice of the sane. We knew our voice would be overwhelmed by those on each side, but we were happy to have something to rally around, as purposeless as it may seem in retrospect.
“We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.” ~The Invitation to the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear
This past summer, I had a more intimate experience with Stewart as I was able to attend a discussion at the Toronto International Film Festival where he described what pushed him to make Rosewater, as well as his feelings toward his impact on the cultural and political zeitgeist of America. There was a weariness to his voice throughout the interview. It was at this time that I truly began to sense that Stewart was falling out of love with the show that he had hosted for 16 years.
And so here we are now looking toward an end, and like that rally on the Mall, one may ask what the overall effect of Stewart’s rein as the most trusted name in news actually was. Things are just as insane as they were when Stewart started, if not maybe a little worse. Conservatives, and Fox News in particular, loved to take shots at him. If he made a mistake, they pounced on him because he was the voice that pushed against them the hardest. What was surprising, however, was how the voices on the left began to turn on him. Progressives who rallied behind Stewart in the beginning began to feel like he wasn’t doing enough toward the end. I think of big L Liberals like Salon’s Elias Isquith, who has argued that Stewart’s lack of true evisceration of the right and lack of praise for the left has left him a snarky non-entity for true political movement. Then there was Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny who wrote in their book #Newsfail: “The only way to effect real change is through the precise instances of direct action that “The Daily Show”—supposed bastion of liberalism—repeatedly mocks, not only in brief comedy sketches on late-night TV, but on a grand scale such as the Rally to Restore Sanity.” Voices such as these either missed the point of Stewart’s cynicism or they simply downright disagreed with his true thesis: Obnoxiousness on the left does not counteract obnoxiousness on the right, or vice versa, it only amplifies the noise and blocks out those in the middle who wish for true debate. That amplification of noise has only catered to a greater polarization of the political space. Parties on both sides run elections that cater to the noisiest, not the rational, and the greatest casualty is balanced, evidence-based policy.
It is with sadness then that Stewart leaves an environment that is just as loud, heated and obnoxious as ever. Among the sadness and congratulatory remarks, there are already voices on both sides that are heralding his departure as a good thing. But for the time that Stewart was here, he championed our voice. We, the people who want nothing more than for those who are in power to have a level of respect for that power, respect for the lives their decisions influence, and to stop treating politics as a game of advantages. He, more than anyone, gave us the platform we needed. In his absence, we will undoubtedly be weaker, though many strong voices continue to exist. All of that being said, I know in my heart that whatever the future holds for him, he will excel at it as he has with everything he does.
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar