By Alexander Campbell
Special to The Cheap Seats
I came of age in politics with the 2000 and 2004 American elections.
Everyday, I’d come home and watch “Crossfire” (sorry about that) and I’d watch Jon Stewart before I went to bed. Before Netflix and PVRs, there was legitimate appointment television. I wanted election information and I knew that I could get it from CNN and from Jon Stewart.
When I wonder why Stewart has such special significance for me, I think it’s because I can’t remember news anchors that I could trust.
My Dad had Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings or, closer to home, Knowlton Nash. I didn’t have those guys. In fact, if I look at it, I’ve watched Dan Rather be ushered to the exit for questionable reporting and Brian Williams shown the door for, likewise, stretching the facts.
That’s where Stewart was different. For whatever reason, you felt like you could trust Jon Stewart. His mission was different, but it felt like what a newsman’s mission should be: to tell truth to stupid.
Stewart never pretended that there were two equal sides to an argument.
He has been called a ‘satirist’ in nearly every retrospective written about his tenure at The Daily Show. That’s fair. Stewart falls into a long tradition of American satirists. He’s much closer to Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken or Will Rogers than he is to Cronkite or Murrow.
Stewart’s job was to point out the absurdity of the world around him in the hopes of making it a little less absurd. However, as he pointed out in his second last show, all the areas where he went after the absurdity actually got more, not less, absurd over his 16 years behind that desk.
Both of these things came together in Stewart’s coverage of the Iraq War. The one area where Iraq found similarities with Vietnam was in its ability to engage young people in what was going on.
As legitimate reporters sounded the drumbeat of war in 2003, Stewart remained a lone voice in the wilderness. He was the only person in the media telling young people that what they were feeling mattered that and that they were probably going to be proven right.
If Stewart had only ever been the court jester of American politics, periodically making fun of elections and engaging in spitball tossing from the back of the class, he would have nowhere near the significance he attained.
Iraq allowed Stewart to find and unite an audience. And it became an audience that fundamentally trusted him above any other source.
Whether he wanted to be a newsman or not, and by all indications he only ever wanted to be a comedian, his audience made him one. His audience might have gotten their news from Twitter or Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post later on, they always came back to Stewart.
For a generation that didn’t believe in appointment television, that caused the rise of Netflix, CraveTV, YouTube and streaming, Jon Stewart remained appointment television.
He shared their sense of what was absurd and he took it on. He shared their sense of anger and he took on the issues of the day. He became an appointment interview for those who wanted high public office in the United States.
In the last year alone, Stewart interviewed the President, the head of the International Monetary Fund and the First Minister of Scotland. By the end, he was a place where people went to make news almost as often as people went there to get their news.
I have one thing in common with Jon Stewart. We’re both immense Bruce Springsteen fans.
At the 2013 South by Southwest Music Festival, Bruce highlighted a quote from Rolling Stone columnist Lester Bangs who wrote, after Elvis’ death in 1978 “So, instead of saying goodbye to Elvis, I will say goodbye to you.”
Lester’s point and Bruce’s by extension was that Elvis was the last thing rock and roll fans of that era would all agree on. He was home base, the great commonality of rock and roll.
For his audience, Jon Stewart is that great commonality.
When he goes off the air, his audience will splinter. Some will follow Stewart proteges like Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah who will occupy Comedy Central’s late night. Others will latch on John Oliver over on HBO or will tune into Stephen Colbert when he takes over David Letterman’s desk at the Late Show.
For them, and me, the end of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show is the end of an era.
But instead of saying goodbye to Jon Stewart, I’ll say goodbye to you.
Senator Alexander Campbell was campaign manager for Sir John A. Macdonald and the sixth lieutenant governor of Ontario. The actual author has asked that his name not be made public at this time and has chosen Alexander Campbell as a pseudonym in part to recognize Sir John’s 200th birthday