On October 15, 2004, the CNN program “Crossfire” altered its standard procedure of featuring two guests from different perspectives to have just one guest: Jon Stewart. The hosts welcomed him and encouraged him to promote his bestselling book “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction.”
He immediately tore into the hosts for the way their show encouraged conflict. He complained that politicians can’t speak more freely because it’s impossible to survive a media environment where shows with titles like “Crossfire” or “Hardball” or “I’m Going To Kick Your Ass” will come after them. He said Crossfire in particular was “bad” and “hurting America.” “Stop. Stop hurting America” he said.
He called the hosts hacks and dismissed the idea that he was sucking up to John Kerry when he asked him questions such as “How are you holding up?” and “Are these attacks fair to you?”
Crossfire was canceled soon thereafter. Most people credit Stewart for not just killing the show, but bringing forth a new age of hyper-political, hyper-liberal late-night comedy. The news scene hasn’t changed altogether much since Stewart’s temper tantrum — except for featuring far less argument-sharpening debate and civil discourse than we had under “Crossfire” when Stewart went on his tear. “Crossfire” used to be one of the few places guests and hosts at least confronted conflicting views, including questions about perspectives and assumptions. It engaged the viewers, rather than ambushed or mocked them. It was also one of the few places on TV outside of Fox News where conservative views were given an audience.
The decline of civil discourse didn’t just happen on cable news shows, thanks to Stewart. He also helped kill it on late-night comedy shows as well.
Rise Of ‘The Daily Show’
Jon Stewart took over “The Daily Show” in 1999, and during the eight years of the Bush presidency the “fake news” show grew into a powerhouse. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll named Stewart as America’s fourth most admired news anchor. The show won dozens of Emmys and multiple Peabody awards. The New York Times called Stewart “the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow.”
In a gushing 2008 feature on the show in the New York Times (“Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?“) Michiko Kakutani called it “both the smartest, funniest show on television and a provocative and substantive source of news.” She claimed the show was “animated not by partisanship but by a deep mistrust of all ideology. A sane voice in a noisy red-blue echo chamber.”
She didn’t list any examples of the show going after Democrats, instead praising it for its handling of the “cherry-picking of prewar intelligence, the politicization of the Department of Justice and the efforts of the Bush White House to augment its executive power.” She quoted Stewart saying he looked forward to the end of the Bush administration “as a comedian, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.” He said that Bush “conducted things” with “true viciousness and contempt.” As a sane voice would put it.
The show’s producers said they try to find stories that “make us angry in a whole new way.” Sometimes, to get the crowd properly whipped up, they had to slice and dice interviews to make targets seem like they had said the opposite of what they’d said. Sometimes Stewart just got angry at conservatives he’d invited on the show, particularly when they showed him up on his home court, as Clifford May, John Yoo, Jonah Goldberg, and various others did.
Kakutani wrote that Stewart used different comedic approaches, but that he was “often” reacting to something “so absurd” that he didn’t say anything, just stared blankly with an expression of dismay. Who can forget the pencil tapping and the goofy exasperation Stewart perfected?
Liberal Political Comedy Shows Expand
At the time Stewart went on his “Crossfire” attack, he was preparing “Colbert Report,” a new “fake news show” that would have even less viewpoint diversity than his “Daily Show.” Bill Maher had already launched “Real Time with Bill Maher” a year prior, a weekly, hour-long liberal comedy show on HBO. “The Colbert Report” satirized conservative pundit shows. It “eviscerated” and “destroyed” conservatives until 2014, at which point Colbert was given the coveted “Late Show,” replacing David Letterman.
Liberal “Saturday Night Live” alum Seth Meyers got his own NBC late-night show in 2014. John Oliver got his “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO that year, too. Liberal Trevor Noah was given “The Daily Show” slot last year. Larry Wilmore replaced Colbert, but his show was canceled in August. Samantha Bee, frustrated by the snub over at Comedy Central, launched her own political show on TBS. She and Oliver are the comedians most likely to be praised for “destroying” things.
Thanks to Stewart, late-night shows are liberal political shows, with very few exceptions, and nearly all of the hosts are alums of “The Daily Show” or otherwise inspired by his faux-news mockery.
Wilmore is enjoying success with his smart and funny new show “Insecure” on HBO. That’s good, since the comment the New York Times made of his canceled show was: “any one episode of ‘The Nightly Show’ could occasionally go for prolonged stretches without a single joke, something that intrigued some critics but failed to attract a broader audience.” He also bombed his White House Correspondents Dinner performance.
But I’m not sure that is something to be ashamed of. Let’s remember back to 2011, when Meyers hosted it and spent much of the evening mocking Donald Trump: