In the 1960s, people asked one another if they had watched Walter Cronkite and the “CBS Evening News” the night before. In the 1980s, it was Ted Koppel and “Nightline.” In the 21st century, it was Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.
Stewart’s final “Daily Show” broadcast will air Thursday night. The impact he had on television was a signal moment. Stewart wasn’t the first satirist to appreciably sway the political and media cultures, but he surely was influential, and it was magnificent to watch him wreak havoc on whatever hapless pol or institution fell in his path.
Stewart took over “The Daily Show” in 1999, which seems like a lifetime ago in the media age. There was no Twitter, no YouTube. Viral videos had yet to exist, and politicians communicated as ever, through news conferences, newspaper articles, op-ed pieces and appearances on Sunday morning talk shows. Pundits called them out, but not in the often-explosive way that Stewart and his writers perfected.
Nor was there much in the way of media culture critique in 1999, either, at least not with the impact that “The Daily Show” could muster. Stewart not only took on elected officials, he blasted entire television networks, notably Fox News and CNN. Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire“ was a masterwork of deconstructive criticism, and it led to the cancellation of that show weeks later after Stewart called upon the hosts to “stop hurting America.”
Stewart and “The Daily Show” led to the creation of a distinct new genre of public affairs television, aimed at youth and anchored by comedians like former “Daily Show” alumni Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, who became powerful figures in their own right.
While a generation of younger Americans may have solely relied on Stewart and “The Daily Show” for their news, the fact is that “The Daily Show” became destination viewing for many of the rest of us, augmenting and critiquing more sober news outlets. Stewart might not have kept them all honest, but he called them out for what they were when they failed.
Now that Stewart is leaving the building, at least for a while, we’ll face the 2016 presidential campaign a little poorer, with fewer laughs. Why couldn’t he have at least stayed on through this goofy presidential campaign until next year?
With every shift in this fragmented era, it has become harder to tell truth to power in a way that will make power listen. Power heard Jon Stewart, and the loss of his voice will be hurting America for a while.