October 13, 2010
Waiting for Sanityman: Can Jon Stewart save America?
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A few days later, on the same “Fox & Friends” couch, two former Bush administration spokespersons now on Fox’s payroll, Dana Perino and Dan Senor, warned that the sinister Kingdom Foundation, which “funds radical madrassas” all over the world, was funding Imam Rauf. Why, Stewart asked, was the actual name of the evil head of the Kingdom Foundation not mentioned on the show? Perhaps because if they had identified him, anyone would have been able to Google up pictures of the Kingdom Foundation’s director, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, shaking hands with Rupert Murdoch and holding hands with George W. Bush. Were Perino and Senor simply stupid and just didn’t know that Alwaleed runs the Kingdom Foundation, or are they truly evil and suppressing a fact that didn’t support their fear-mongering narrative? The ensuing debate between “The Daily Show” correspondents John Oliver and Wyatt Cenack, one wearing a T-shirt saying “TEAM STUPID,” the other wearing “TEAM EVIL,” capped a brilliant take-down of Fox that no “real” news network had the insight, wit or courage to produce.
During the 2008 campaign, Stewart showed footage of Dick Morris accusing Hillary Clinton of sexism, and then called Morris “a lying sack of s—-.” Is that Stewart necessary right now? Yes. The other Stewart, the one who wants Tea Partiers to come to his sanity rally because “we’re not enemies, we’re all working toward the same goals”—is that who this moment cries out for? Not so much. Sometimes real righteousness is required—not the hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-rally impishness that disses the gravitas of Stewart’s fans, but the passion that honors the patriotism and stokes the fires of his flock.
In a Time online poll whose legitimacy it’s easy to imagine him destroying, Jon Stewart was named “the most trusted man in America.” Even in scientific polls, Americans rank him alongside the highly compensated broadcast network anchors whose audiences always dwarf his. Stewart has only 1.8 million viewers. But according to Pew research, they’re more knowledgeable about current events than the audience of almost every other source of news. Some people are alarmed to hear that young people think they’re getting real news from “The Daily Show,” that they’re more likely to watch Stewart than, say, the PBS News Hour, or than to read The New York Times. Those are superb, equally essential custodians of sanity. Without them, and the other sources of information on all the platforms where people graze all day long, it would be much harder, maybe impossible, to get the jokes that Stewart tells. But people do get those jokes. Something’s going right.
A few years back, a phenomenon called the ” ‘The Daily Show’ effect” migrated from the academic research that coined it to the larger national conversation. Social scientists were concerned that Stewart’s relentless satire fostered cynicism in his viewers. It seems to me that those scholars misidentified the source of Americans’ dyspeptic mistrust of our leaders. The conduct of politicians, and the bankrupt system that corrupts them, and the news media that cover the fate of American democracy as though it were a cheesy reality show: those are the real (and appropriate) sources of our cynicism. Sanity, and patriotism, spring from the sass of a Stewart, from the character Colbert plays, from the kids calling out the emperors’ nakedness, and from all the citizens heading to the Mall on Oct. 30 filled with unironic, vulnerable, passionate last-ditch hope.