The Sad Decline of The Daily Show

Bullets over Benghazi

With Stephen Colbert departing for CBS to replace David Letterman in 2015, I’d like to preemptively ring the death knell for the great hour of Swiftian satire that Comedy Central gave us Monday through Thursday for nearly the past decade. The Daily Show (TDS) with Jon Stewart, of course, will be sticking around, but it’s becoming increasingly timeworn, even uninteresting. Conservative critics of the show predicted it would lose its poignancy with the election of President Obama and Stewart’s chief bête noire, the Bush administration, out of power. And while they seemed to have a point initially–Jon Stewart seemed to have a hard time finding his footing after the first Obama inauguration–eventually TDS came around and found its post-Bush groove. Indeed, TDS was enlivened by the presence of long-time “correspondent” John Oliver last summer, as he filled in for Jon Stewart who was off directing a movie about an Iranian journalist and his detainment and torture in the notorious Evin prison. Unfortunately, for those of us who have enjoyed TDS’ sardonic and trenchant observations of the utterly absurd world that is American politics, the show has become stale, redundant, and largely irrelevant outside of a small echo chamber of American TV political punditry.

Conventional wisdom tells us that many young people get their news from TDS and Colbert, with a 2010 Pew survey finding that Colbert and TDS dominated the sought after 18-49 demographic as a source of news. This should come as no surprise, although the numbers are quite eye-catching, with 80% of respondents indicating they utilize the Colbert Report as a news source and 74% using TDS. Meanwhile, the survey indicated only 35% and 33% of respondents in the same demographic watching Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity respectively. Therein lies much of the problem for TDS; young people don’t watch and really don’t care about Fox. And yet it’s almost as though the show has decided become some media watchdog. On any given night, the lead segment of the TDS will highlight some inane commentary on the issue of the day, primarily from the Fox News talking heads, and then proceed to a sharply edited reel of contradictory statements from the same outlet or pundit evidencing the hypocrisy of the network or the commenter. Newsflash: Sean Hannity is a hypocrite. Newsflash: Bill O’Reilly is a churlish, arrogant dick. Newsflash: CNN is really boring.

On the week of April 21, Stewart spent two nights on lengthy segments discussing Sean Hannity’s (surprise!) shifting stances on the rule of law and the power of the federal government in light of the “ranch standoff” between Nevada farmer Cliven Bundy and the U.S. government (the story is really too stupid and facile to explain. If you care, read The New York Times piece on it, which says Bundy’s case was “propelled into the national spotlight in part by steady coverage by Fox News.”) TDS covered the right’s fascination with the “patriot” Bundy, as the conservative Washington Times put it, who denies the existence of the federal government. Bundy is a “U.S.Atheist,” as Stewart cleverly called him. As TDS so often does now, the segment provided a montage of clips of Hannity and other Fox talking heads vomiting out one hypocritical comment after the other. Hannity, who sort of seemed like a defensive teenager, fired back at Stewart, calling him, among other things, a “hack.” The folks at TDS obviously couldn’t let such a barb stand and responded Wednesday with another segment on how Hannity is… A HYPOCRITE!

It’s not that Stewart’s monologue to end the segment was off-base; it was just the same hackneyed, tired, warmed over upbraiding of the easiest target imaginable. Here are Stewarts final comments:

For all the disingenuous, hypocritical, nonfactual, corrosive, hacky, awful, word-turds that you speak, you did get one thing right. I am obsessed with your program in the same way that I am obsessed with antibiotic resistant super bugs, or the Pacific garbage patch, or the KFC double-down, because I just can’t believe that in this day and age, with all that we know, this shit is out there.

That our society is weighed down by these burdens of a seemingly more medieval time, like your show. To see it night after night, serving up the same shit, my god, you’re the Arby’s of news.

Right, we get it. And really, I’d argue that a lot of the reason the general public largely comprehends that Fox is an ideological media machine (not that, say, MSNBC is much different), not a news outlet, is because of TDS. The general public doesn’t have a media archive to go through or have the ability to sift through hours of Fox News broadcast. But, TDS should ask itself if this the battle it wants to be fighting? More to the point, wouldn’t you prefer if TDS actually covered news stories? Not the coverage of the stories themselves? That meta-coverage is certainly useful, but I’d like Stewart’s actual take on the stories themselves, not his take on the take of some execrable pundit. Enough already.

While I admit, I haven’t done some statistical analysis of TDS’ segment; this is my anecdotal impression of the show, which I watch 3 times a week generally. But, if you don’t believe me go through the show’s recent archives. Earlier in April, TDS offered a segment on a bizarre three-day expose Hannity’s show put together on Spring Break. In an early February show, Stewart went after Billy O. for his pre-Super Bowl interview with President Obama, which he called a “full Fox scandal grab bag.” Was anyone surprised that O’Reilly wasn’t exactly “fair” with the President? The same week TDS opened two different episodes with its Hannity segments, the other two episodes began with segments on the media’s sexist coverage of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy and the putative attendant consequences for Hilary’s 2016 run (yawn) and a segment on how CNN only offered two minutes of coverage to a foreboding UN climate report yet continues to obsessively coverage the missing Malaysian jetliner (TDS has already spent significant time censuring CNN for its sensationalist coverage of the missing plane) . Why not cover the UN report and talk about how profoundly catastrophic the future may be if we don’t act quickly? Does CNN coverage, or the lack thereof, matter at all here? Occasionally, I appreciate these sorts of segments, but when it becomes the lead segment each night, well, it’s just starting to seem lazy.

It’s not as though TDS is the sole offender in this regard; media outlets from both the left and the right are increasingly focusing their coverage on each other’s coverage. Look at leading liberal publications like Slate or Salon and you’ll inevitably find a bevy of headlines with titles like “How the Right….is like Hitler” or Buzzfeed listicle-like articles enumerating the “10 Reasons why Republicans Hate Vaginas.” Jon Stewart typically responds to all criticism of the show by protesting–a bit too much if you ask me–against such demands for more from TDS. He is only but a comedian, doing a comedy show. But, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask more from TDS and Jon Stewart, particularly given the sort of show we’ve seen in years past. Indeed, TDS still has moments once in a while that demonstrate how it can speak truth to power and provide a certain biting antagonism so lacking in the mainstream media. Stewart’s recent interview with House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, where he grilled the California Democrat on the failure of the healthcare website roll out and her staffers leaving the hill to become lobbyists, gave us such a reminder.

Or check out TDS’ acerbic look at racism in America amid the Bundy controversy and the legitimate outcry against the racist statements of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/full-episodes/a69rw6/april-28–2014—mookie-wilson

The myopic focus on the fecklessness of CNN and the philistinism of Fox has made TDS seemed tired and recycled. What is more, highlighting the inanity of Hannity in this case only provides the square headed buffoon with more exposure. It sort of reminds me of the post-campaign platform the media provided Sarah Palin. Much of the media wondered why everyone cared about her every word, while putting her on TV every night. Instead of just ignoring and marginalizing such people, TDS inflates their importance in national politics, like so much other mainstream media. Leave Fox to the people who care to tune in to its fabrications. There’s nothing inherently wrong with covering the media as TDS does. For example, I will always remember Stewart’s coverage of media complicity in the Iraq war. But, there are real things going on in the real world that TDS can discuss with its particular brand of adversarial satire. With Colbert leaving for CBS, I hope TDS can return to providing the type of “fake news” that made it such an important and mordant avenue for examining our silly politics.

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