Why The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart was a formidable news force

The comedian has changed America more than Obama or Reagan, says Justin Webb

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Let me tell it straight. Straight to camera, as he does: Jon Stewart, who announced this month that he is retiring as the host of The Daily Show on America’s Comedy Central, is the most influential American since Ronald Reagan.

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Yep, sorry Messrs Bush (presidents 41 and 43) and Clinton and Obama. Y’all did your best to transform the nation but really, when it comes to shifting a culture, none of you came close. 

Mr Stewart (and perhaps the writers of Modern Family might get a mention here as well) made America different. He started presenting The Daily Show 16 years ago. His work is done: he has used his immense talent, his quick wits, his painstaking research, his command of language, to move young Americans to a different place – in many respects a more European place, with less religion, more gay rights, fewer hang-ups, more tolerance. Where Ronnie shifted them right, Jonnie shifted them back again.

Not that everyone is on board for the reverse Reagan. Plenty of Americans cannot stand Stewart, but all Americans have seen the power of a comedian telling them the news every night. And although he is socially liberal – more so than his nation – he is not a partisan ranter. He can kick Obama, and has. So he has real clout: a few years ago he was voted America’s most trusted news source, and that is no joke. 

Brian Williams, on the other hand, is widely regarded as a joke and not a very funny one. His departure from the NBC Nightly News (for six months, with no pay) is a punishment for embellishing stories about his war reporting. Few think he will be back, and, few are mourning his departure. It’s nothing personal. And that is the point. His demise signals the end of an era whose sell-by date passed a decade ago.

Ah, the network anchors! Those chiselled jaws, gimlet eyes, and improbably dark hair. A report on a million dying of starvation? They could channel your horror. A duck? Skateboarding? In Wisconsin? Their eyes could meet yours as together you thought, “Time to make the tea…”

When television news was in its pomp, the American model led the way. From Tokyo to London, from Pretoria to Moscow, people with roughly symmetrical faces and well-controlled eyebrows became famous and the things they said were (more or less) believed. They were sent up – in films such as Broadcast News and Anchorman – but not really challenged.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzZCi4G-uPU

Now, in America, the TV nightly news has finally died. It’ll carry on, of course, with tweaks and rebirths and perhaps one day with Brian Williams, but the art form is moribund. Among people who expect broadcasting to be daring and vivid, the well- researched jokiness of Stewart beat the nightly news to a pulp. And he also managed to avoid the other great pitfall of the internet age: taking yourself too seriously.

Poor Brian Williams fell headlong into that morass and took his whole genre with him. He was paid ten million dollars a year. Seriously! For reading the news. No jokes, very few interviews. Just reading. In a self-aware age we are simply not going to be fooled into thinking that such things make sense. Which is probably why poor Mr Williams felt the need to make things up about himself and his exploits.

None of this detracts from the men who led the evening news when it was great. I got lost once, in Walter Cronkite’s walk-in closet. I had concluded an interview with the greatest of the American anchormen I and had strode out through what I thought was the door. I staggered back into the room with his shirts on my head. But he – by then in his 90s – was already taking a nap. And here’s the oddness: the interview was conducted at NBC headquarters in New York; Mr Cronkite was such a big star that he was given a suite of offices at the very top of the building.

His exploits (in Vietnam and in the Normandy landings) matched his majesty. They allowed it to be acceptable. When Mr Cronkite died they should have stuck the whole evening news in a closet of its own. Or given the job to Jon Stewart. Too late now… 

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The Daily Show is on Comedy Central Extra on Thursdays at 12.50am