I’m just a comedian. – Jon Stewart
This is a revised and updated version of a blog I posted in early 2013. I enjoyed watching Jon Stewart preaching to the choir as much as anyone. However, I never expected any authentic, radical commentary from him, for three reasons. First, the fact that he never mentioned the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in office) indicated the limits of his criticism of American policies that have been remarkably consistent, if hypocritical, since the end of World War Two.
Second, and perhaps more fundamental, was his policy of regularly inviting creeps like Bill O’Reilly as well as government spokespersons and other representatives of the corporate media onto his show for debate. Stewart was first and foremost an entertainer, and no one should have expected him to jeopardize his own status.
Now I have nothing against “reasoned debate.” Indeed, we could use much more of it. But by doing this, he gave them and their positions legitimacy before the camera and the millions who watched him, a legitimacy that they neither needed (they certainly got plenty of exposure on their own) nor deserved. This expresses what I call “liberal innocence” – the insistence, despite all evidence, that conservatives (I prefer the term “reactionaries”) and liberals will sort out “the facts” in a disengaged, orderly process on a “level playing field,” in which all participants share a common desire for enhancing the public welfare.
Bullshit. The unedited history of the last sixty years should show anyone who is willing to actually look that the Right and its flunkies have never played by the “rules” and never will. Naively hoping that they might do so only solidifies our sense of innocence and leads ultimately to disillusionment with the political process itself.
Stewart had a clear function within the corporate media: to constantly remind his viewers of the limits of acceptable discourse: meaning, from far-right to moderately liberal. Every time he playfully bantered with O’Reilly and his ilk, those scumbags moved a bit closer to the middle in the public, liberal eye. And, given that many young people admit that they got all their news from Stewart and, perhaps, Stephen Colbert, his role becomes even more important.
For a while I also enjoyed watching Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow trash right-wingers with their devastating wit. However, the fact that they rarely criticized the Obama administration (whose fundamental policies and financial supporters were not significantly different from its predecessors) indicates a similar kind of innocent refusal, even denial, to rock the boat. By skewering right-wingers without acknowledging either collusion by Democrats or authentic left-wing alternatives, they served the function of all the media: to constrict the terms of debate to a fraction of that spectrum and give the impression that we have real freedom of expression in this country.
Eventually, it became clear that Maddow and all her MSNBC crowd had become nothing more than spokespersons for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, as Fox is for the Republicans. The jokes became stale, safe, snarky and predictable.
Ultimately, his corporate bosses deemed Olberman unacceptably liberal and they fired him in 2012. And who received the task of letting the public know just why it was good riddance? Why, John Stewart, who slammed Olberman for his “bombast” and “rage,” thereby solidifying his own position as the arbiter of reasoned discourse.
Here is the third reason why he never offered any real criticism of corporate power in America. Many parents and older people told their activist children in the 1960s, “We approve of your goals but not of your methods.” In attacking Olberman’s style, Stewart was deliberately instructing his audience that, as bad as things may be, one would be wrong to even feel rage, or by extension, to feel anything at all, other than mild (if short-lived) euphoria after having had a good laugh, let alone to act upon it. He rarely spoke truth to power, and when he did, it was from the stance of wounded innocence.
Eventually, with the dominance of Fox News, the Koch-funded Tea Party and the grand con-man Trump, the issue of “fake news” arose to muddy the boundaries between truth and fiction on several levels. But as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky had been arguing for decades, the established, corporate, “liberal” media had always purveyed news and opinion through subtle but highly slanted narratives quite deliberately intended to reinforce the myth of American innocence and the good intentions of the American Empire.
Stewart and Colbert revived an old entertainment form: comedians pretending to be newscasters, as in Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” Perhaps they were simply taking note of how American culture had been changing since the Ronald Reagan years. As (despite the media’s determined efforts) our grand narrative was breaking down, so were all of our institutions. Especially in the realms of politics, education and entertainment, many people were realizing that there was hardly any difference anymore. Who coined the term “edutainment?” Walt Disney, in 1954.
But Stewart the fake newsman never pretended to have values other those of Stewart the wealthy, Jewish (that is, unquestioningly pro-Israel) liberal, or “PEP” (progressive except for Palestine). And for the reasons I’ve mentioned, he could never break out of that bubble, with its gatekeeping function.
Stewart alumnae Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore have carried on the tradition without playing the fake newscaster role, but as straight-up, progressive, comedy. I would argue that Bee and Oliver, angry, persuasive and hilarious as they are (and thankfully not hosting conservatives for “reasoned” debate), have still, on occasion, revealed that they can function as gatekeepers as well. Bee regularly reinforces the anti-Russia narrative that denies the real reasons why Trump won, and Oliver has demonized those who question Big Pharma’s pro-vaccination narrative.
I could be wrong on these issues myself, but we are still talking about gatekeeping, and ultimately gatekeeping always serves the interests of the wealthy. Noah, of course, in keeping with Stewart’s old format, has also proven to be an effective gatekeeper.
The African-American Wilmore committed a more serious sin: he hosted a show with an angry, progressive, mostly person-of-color cast and was openly critical of Barack Obama. He retained the interview format, but his guests were often political activists, and the interviews themselves included members of the cast. There were always at least two Black persons in front of the camera. It’s really surprising that his corporate chieftains kept him around as long as they did. Eventually, they claimed, his ratings were insufficient.
And of course this thought reminds us of a question I regularly pose in these essays: Cui bono? Who profits? Follow the money. Do you remember what CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said of Donald Trump’s presidential run? “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
By this logic, even O’Reilly would turn liberal if the sponsorship or the ratings justified such a change. Up to a point, this seems to be one of the fundamental values of media in late capitalism: if it sells – if there is an identifiable market – keep selling it. Beyond that point, criticism of the system itself, aside from some of the clowns who embody it, becomes intolerable. This, combined with low ratings, spelled Wilmore’s demise.
Colbert the fake newsman actually slipped real criticism into his schtick by creating a raging blowhard persona inspired by characters like O’Reilly. Emily Nussbaum, in the New Yorker writes:
By wearing a mask made of his own face, he (Colbert) inflected every interaction with multiple ironies, keeping his guests—including politicians and authors—off balance, and forcing them to be spontaneous.
I’d take that statement further. By pretending to be a conservative chatting with other conservatives, he was able to reveal them as the thugs they really were, without giving them legitimacy. It was a subtle difference between him and Stewart, and a very important one: parody vs. satire. Colbert was a subversive: he undermined the dominant discourse and got away with it, because he had great ratings. By the way, those ratings provided the answer to the common question: “Why would those people allow themselves to look so foolish?’ The answer: Cui bono. Any publicity is good publicity.
I use the past tense here, because Colbert’s shift from Comedy Central to CBS sucked him straight into the gatekeeper vortex.
One of his very first guests in September 2015 was Trump himself. Perhaps Colbert assumed that a Trump nomination, not to mention presidency, was so unlikely that the comic potential and legitimization would be worth it. Fans who expected him to skewer Trump were certainly disappointed, however, as Trump refused to take his mild baiting and Colbert actually apologized for having criticized him in the past.
Indeed, like every interview he would do on the new show, it was a typical network-style discussion: long on safe, predictable jokes, short on the old irony and de-legitimizing. The effect was what we would later describe as “normalization.” Nussbaum describes these interviews:
With the irony drained away, Colbert was less vivid. He had a try-hard earnestness, a damp corporate pall; he was courtly with guests, as if modeling bipartisan behavior. Taking off the mask had made him less visible, not more.
Eventually, as Trump ascended, so did Colbert’s anger, but the late-night format continues to dictate the content – and the normalization. Attacking Trump is necessary and provides needed relief. But it isn’t in itself subversive when everyone is doing it, and when much of the criticism is calculated to support the liberal narrative of Hillary Clinton, the DNC and Russian hacking: If only they hadn’t done that, we’d have a real president.
Under an absurdist regime, intensified by the digital landscape…all jokes become “takes,” their punch lines interchangeable with CNN headlines, Breitbart clickbait, Facebook memes, and Trump’s own drive-by tweets, which themselves crib gags from “Saturday Night Live.” (“Not!”) Under these conditions, a late-night monologue begins to feel cognitively draining, not unlike political punditry.
Nussbaum prefers John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Seth Myers. But it always comes back to gatekeeping, one of the primary functions, incidentally, of The New Yorker. These three are all excellent and progressive comics. Unlike Wilmore and his cast, however, they’re all white.
In 2017, when haters have free rein, from the Attorney General down to violent cops and loonies in bleacher seats, when humor is nearly indistinguishable from government proclamations, angry (even if funny) Black men are still beyond the pale. Keeping them – and their implied assault on American innocence – out there is one reason why gatekeepers do what they do, and why they are paid so well.