Jon Stewart during a taping of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in New York.
Jon Stewart during a taping of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in New York. (Brad Barket / Associated Press)

Jon Stewart changed American culture. You can't say that about many performers, especially comedians working on a basic-cable channel that rarely drew more than a million viewers for any of its shows before him.

He took over the fake anchor desk at Comedy Central in 1999 at a time when social scientists regularly lamented the political apathy of young adults, and he made politics cool for millennials. By the time of Barack Obama's run for the White House in 2008, young adults had became a major electoral force, thanks in part to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

Advertisement

That's an impressive legacy as Stewart signs off Thursday amid legitimate concern over the state of political satire on TV, with Stephen Colbert having decamped from Comedy Central for a more entertainment-oriented perch as David Letterman's replacement on CBS come September.

But it wasn't just an awareness of current events and politics, or even a prod to engagement in the political process, that Stewart offered his young fans. He also gave them a way of looking at the world — a liberal ideology. And with it came an attitude and manner of talking about politics that mocked those who did not see the world through the same lens. Stewart's politics and presentational style were steeped in sneers and putdowns aimed at conservatives.

A 2008 Pew content analysis of "The Daily Show" found that "Republicans tended to bear the brunt of ridicule from Stewart and his crew" and that "Stewart's humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats."

That said, I still greatly admired Stewart in his earlier years for his political and media criticism — the two topics that his show was found to favor most in that Pew study.

In 2004, I was one of his biggest cheerleaders when he went after CNN's "Crossfire," a half-hour cable TV program built on partisan battles between a conservative and a liberal, and blew it up by telling the hosts, former Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala and conservative columnist Tucker Carlson, that they were "political hacks" and urged them to "stop hurting America" with their rancorous, show-biz shout-downs.

His appearance came in October just before the presidential election, and in January, when a new chief, Jonathan Klein, took over CNN, he canceled the show, citing Stewart's critique.

Stewart was often at his comedic best in presidential election cycles with his "Indecision"-branded, campaign-focused shows.

But this is also where his worst partisan impulses started to show. With the arrival of Obama on Pennsylvania Avenue, Stewart began letting himself be used as a political tool.

On Oct. 18, 2012, in the midst of what was then still a hotly contested election, Obama appeared on "The Daily Show" in an interview segment that ran for nine minutes and 10 seconds.

The appearance came at a crucial time, right after the second debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who had rocked a somnambulant-looking Obama in their opening face-off. Obama came back strong in the second and was now on a bit of a roll.

Typical of the kinds of questions Stewart asked the president: "Would you say you have a stronger affirmative case for a second Obama presidency, or a stronger negative case against a Romney presidency?"

Here's a comedian who is more trusted by some young voters than many TV journalists. Right after a soft opening question, he gave Obama an open field to explain away his performance in the first debate and celebrate his victory in the second.

This is the equivalent of local TV sports reporters who interview the winning home-team pitcher with questions like, "You were so awesome tonight. Which would you say was greater, your fastball or your slider?"

In a fitting coda to the relationship, Obama's last appearance on "The Daily Show" on July 21 ended with the interviewer and interviewee mocking Republicans.

Advertisement

When Stewart asked Obama what advice he would "bequeath to future President Trump," the president laughingly said, "I am sure the Republicans are enjoying Mr. Trump's current dominance in their primary."

"Anything that makes them look less crazy," Stewart replied.

Stewart is not an honest broker of humor and information — political or otherwise. He savages his enemies and protects his friends.

Remember how wrong he got it in ripping CNN in 2011 for its aggressive coverage of then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (aka Carlos Danger) and his sexting scandal? But CNN was absolutely right, and Weiner, who ultimately resigned in disgrace, deserved the tough coverage he got from CNN.

More recently, there was Stewart's misdirection in belatedly dealing with the lies of another friend, Brian Williams, who was removed as anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News." Stewart's tactic here was to rip the press for allegedly being more tenacious in covering the Williams scandal than it was in covering the Bush administration's manipulation of public opinion during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

That's a regular dance he does when a story is too big to ignore but he doesn't want to attack the wrongdoer: He criticizes the media, particularly cable TV, for the way it covers the story.

Finding fault with cable TV on most big stories is shooting fish in a barrel. But with Stewart, it's all in the attitude and snark he brings to the task.

Stewart's other dodge when he is called out on a misleading claim or attack is to say, "Hey, I'm just a comedian." Real journalists don't have the luxury of ducking accountability that way.

As many times as I have criticized Stewart in recent years, this farewell piece would be far more positive if not for the report from Politico last week that Stewart had met privately with Obama on two occasions in 2011 and 2014. Each time, Obama was trying to sell a piece of his agenda to the nation.

In a New York Times article on the meetings, Dag Vega, who was described as having worked at the White House "developing relationships with media figures," is quoted as saying, "Jon Stewart was a key influencer for millennials. They relied on him for an honest take on the news, and the president and senior staff know that."

Vega told the Times that it was "often remarked in senior staff meetings that he [Stewart] was the Walter Cronkite for the millennial generation. That's why it was important to meet up with him and engage with him."

And try to use him to exploit that millennial trust on behalf of the administration's agenda?

Let me be transparent in a way Stewart isn't.

I am angry that the 52-year-old comedian allowed himself to be used this way to exploit the trust millennials place in him for an "honest take on the news." That's an abrogation of public trust — even if you only play a media critic on a comedy channel.

I take some solacein the fact that in terms of legacy, he will pay a price for that. Had he been more evenhanded in his takedowns and transparent in his relationship with the political figures he regularly critiqued, most critics would now be judging him strictly in cultural terms rather than partisan ones populating the Internet this past week. And he wouldn't need two nights to defend himself on his show, as he did in his penultimate week.

As I said in February when Stewart's departure from Comedy Central was announced, culturally he's a more important figure than Johnny Carson, the legendary and undisputed king of late-night comedy TV.

Advertisement

Carson was so good at late-night comedy that adults of several generations made him part of their nightly ritual. They brought Carson and TV into their bedrooms for a last thought or laugh of the day. That's a huge lifestyle development.

But Stewart, in addition to turning young adults on to the political process, did something even more significant: He taught a mass audience to think of politics as prime-time entertainment on a nightly basis.

Some might say thinking of politics as entertainment is a bad thing — another instance of TV dumbing down the culture. But I don't think anyone, even his harshest critic, would accuse Stewart of dumbing down anything.

I just wish he had been as socially responsible and honest as he was smart, glib and entertaining the past 16 years on Comedy Central.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement