Don’t get me wrong: I love Jon Stewart, and I'll miss him. He’s witty, he hires great writers, his eye roll delivery is consistently pitch-perfect. For years, he’s been the nation’s best media critic. His brief monologue after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, about remembering who the true enemy is, was breathtaking.
But sometimes I worry that, without meaning to, he helped to spawn a couple of depressing trends in modern civic life. The first is the blurring of the lines between sarcasm and news. The second is the inevitable creep from sarcasm to snideness.
This happens on cable TV, where many of the most successful shows – including the ones most often in Stewart’s crosshairs – aren’t straight-up news delivery, but news packaged with attitude and, often, contempt. It happens online, where newsy websites often blur the lines between reporting and commentary – by mixing them up on the same page, or topping news stories with sensational headlines, or infusing aggregations with a voice that might be striving for funny but comes across as mean.
This isn’t what Stewart does. He’s a comedian. His show is satire. It airs on a comedy channel. People will watch as they will; we’ve all heard complaints about Those Kids Today who get their full news diet from Stewart. But “The Daily Show” works best as a complement to the news. You get more of the jokes when you’ve been following the story.
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Meanness isn’t what Stewart does, either. He has always managed to strike a balance between sarcasm and humanity, which comes back to that eye roll: It comes not from a place of contempt but an everyman’s sense of frustration. He knows when to put forth legitimate outrage and when to come across with detached amusement.
The trouble is that success breeds imitators; everyone wants to be a comedian now and not just the professional news outlets. Read through nearly any comment section, under nearly any article, on nearly any website, and you have to trudge through a pile of snide jokes, most of which don’t land.
Comedy is hard. The shortcut is to sneer. And a sneer can be a boundary – from empathizing with other people, from considering other points of view, from having a respectful back-and-forth conversation. If you grow too accustomed to news delivered with a snarky headline or a witty punchline – a worldview filtered through a strong personality – you’re perhaps a little less inclined to be generous in thought, to consider other points of view, to make up your mind for yourself.
Is this a cri de coeur from an old-school newspaper person? Possibly. The shoe fits. You can argue that consumers know what they’re getting. You can hope that everyone has the time and inclination to be omnivores. And it’s worth noting that most of the outlets that traffic in snideness, including cable news, are capable of terrific reporting and nuanced writing – and very often commit it.
The trouble is the cumulative effect of all of that trumped-up bile, the way it starts with the news and bleeds outward. It’s worth remembering Stewart’s Charlie Hebdo commentary, when he noted that “the legislators and journalists and institutions that we jab and ridicule are not in any way the enemy.”
And if our current media culture, so infused with sneers, makes us inclined to think of too many people as the enemy? That’s the opposite of what Jon Stewart would want.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.