It was only minutes into an interview with Jon Stewart before a screening of his film, "Rosewater," last November when I knew he would never fully return to "The Daily Show." Working on that heartfelt and effective movie about an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned by the regime for 118 days made the comedian wax poetic about how lasting and indelible film was — compared to a television show.
He was explicit about his change in attitude in his surprise announcement that he was leaving at the end of Tuesday’s show. “What is this fluid,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “What are these feelings,” he said pounding the desk. He then confirmed what he had hinted at a few months earlier. “This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host.”
There had been signs. He had become a factory of satire and social commentary, attracting and developing talent that often bid fair to surpass the master. John Oliver has taken uncovering the truth into new territory, rooting out corruption in places as varied as the Miss America pageant and for-profit schools that exploit veterans. Stephen Colbert did such a job un-spinning phony spin with truthfulness that he is taking over for David Letterman this year. Another "Daily Show" alum, Larry Wilmore, has made a promising beginning with his "Nightly Show."
Stewart got his start in 1999. An ocean of material soon lapped at his shore — wild conventions, the 2000 recount that gave him the “Indecision 2000” trope, Sarah Palin, The Tea Party, two endless wars, and a global financial meltdown.
He mined every last bit and soon was a public figure of such standing that he was twice invited to host the Oscars. How could he give it all up? Maybe after 17 years he felt — as many of us do — he just couldn’t face the void of another election. He made exposing mealy-mouthed politicians look like shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe the sight of all those dead fish became too much to look at.
What's certain is that Stewart’s departure will have a greater impact on the American public's news literacy than the suspension of Brian Williams from the NBC Nightly News.
Williams is a newsreader of the conventional wisdom, albeit one with 8.43 million viewers. Stewart's four-nights-a-week skewering gets an average of 1.3 million viewers, but these are in the coveted 18 to 29 demographic. When the Pew Research Center asked four questions to measure knowledge of political news and current events, "Daily Show" viewers did significantly better than network news viewers.
The comedian's segment on the Williams debacle was Stewart-in-full. First came criticism of Williams's fictional brush with combat-zone danger, then the human sympathy for the humiliated anchor — a sharp contrast to the joy so many rivals seem to take in his fall.
Then Stewart pivoted to a much larger point, the relative triviality of Williams’s offense compared with the far greater lies told about the Iraq War that will forever go unpunished.
Stewart showed that Williams gave an initially accurate rendition of his helicopter ride in Iraq but that as the years passed the story grew. By the time Williams made his fateful comments about surviving the shoot-down of the chopper on the "Late Show With David Letterman" in 2013, he was infected with infotainment confusion syndrome, which occurs when the brain’s applause center pushes a celebrity into full-blown anecdote mode.
Stewart came as close to defending Williams as he could by putting his downfall in its proper context. "Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War," he said. "Never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn't have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual [expletive deleted] war."
Unlike many TV personalities, Stewart doesn’t seem to be trying to fill a hole inside himself. Williams does. In addition to seeking war zone credibility, he wanted to be cool. His schedule was crowded with sideshows — slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, cameos on "30 Rock," rocking with Bruce Springsteen, and hosting Hurricane Sandy concerts.
He was trying too hard to make clear he wasn't your father’s anchorman. At one point, NBC brass pursued Stewart as a possible fill-in for David Gregory on "Meet the Press." Our media wires are so crossed now you can imagine Williams spurning a gig on "Meet the Press" for one on "The Daily Show."
Stewart may have been tiring of the daily grind, and wanting to have dinner with his family whom he heard from multiple sources is made up of lovely people. But viewers weren’t tiring of him. He won 20 Emmys. He went live with his friend Colbert in 2010 when the Tea Party was on the rise — and Obama was in decline — but the two comics were still hopeful enough to draw hundreds of thousands to the National Mall to encourage civil discourse despite the dysfunction in the Capitol blocks away.
Was it spending time with Bahari — the Newsweek reporter portrayed in "Rosewater" who put everything on the line to tell a life and death story of imprisonment — that convinced Stewart to move on? Or, maybe he found it too disheartening that no matter how many fish in the barrel he shot, new ones kept coming, as if politicians, and the voters who elect them, had learned nothing from all those nights Stewart spent exposing mendacity and folly.
The creator of Indecision 2000 will leave us on our own to figure out Indecision 2016. It won't be easy.
Margaret Carlson is a former White House correspondent for Time, and was Time's first woman columnist. She appeared on CNN's "Capital Gang" for 15 years. Carlson has won two National Headliner Awards as well as the Belva Ann Lockwood alumni award from George Washington University Law School. Read more reports from Margaret Carlson — Click Here Now.
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