An oral history of The Daily Show proves that not all fake news is created equal

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests
Chris Smith; foreword by Jon Stewart
Grand Central Publishing

Fake news seemed to take on a life of its own in 2016. The genre, of course, is by no means a recent development: in Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes has been around since 1993, and the Royal Canadian Air Farce debuted on radio in 1973 and on television in 1980. Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” segment launched in 1975 with Chevy Chase making jokes about the late Spanish dictator Fransisco Franco and U.S. president Gerald Ford; it has been skewering American politics and politicians ever since.

But before 2016, so-called fake news had never been blamed for helping to overturn the expected result of a U.S. election. And to be fair, the kind of “fake news” sites run out of Macedonia by tech-savvy teenagers, or reported from southern Ontario by millennial “journalists” unconcerned with trying to be “100 percent accurate,” do not constitute satire or parody so much as out-and-out propaganda. That’s what separates stories about Pizzagate or the suggestion that there is something “fishy” about the 1993 death of Vince Foster from legitimate satire like The Onion or The Daily Show. To any reasonable observer, there is a clear and obvious distinction between satirical fake news on the one hand, and paranoid conspiracy theories on the other.

As this entertaining and comprehensive new oral history of Jon Stewart’s 16-year tenure behind The Daily Show anchor desk illustrates, one of the host’s persistent annoyances was the lack of factual rigour among other, putatively reputable news broadcasts, most especially on CNN and Fox News. Indeed, one of the signal attributes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – and its equally incisive spinoff, The Colbert Report – was an unswerving devotion to factual accuracy. Sure, the shows trafficked in jokes and japery, but they were resoundingly diligent in ensuring a clear and absolute distinction between something meant ironically and something intended to be taken straight. And anything in the latter category was scrupulously fact-checked and reliable.

The dissatisfaction resulting from a craven and sycophantic media establishment that often appeared more concerned with careerism, blind adherence to ideology, and access to powerful individuals than with a devotion to uncovering and reporting the truth became one of the driving forces powering The Daily Show and motivating its host, along with a desire to hold politicians to account for their words and actions, especially when those words and actions contradicted one another.

Stewart was rarely more on point than when skewering the hypocrisy of the conservative right in the U.S., and The Daily Show (the Book) offers some classic examples, including the 2012 “Chaos on Bullshit Mountain” piece about the panicked attempt by Fox News to spin Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, or the 2014 interview with Bill O’Reilly, during which Stewart tried unsuccessfully to get the Fox News pundit to admit that white privilege exists. The book also revisits Stewart’s blistering appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, when he accused hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of “hurting America” by acting as shills for political agents and giant corporations. (The CNN debate show was cancelled shortly after Stewart’s guest spot.)

All of this material will be familiar to devoted followers of The Daily Show. What may be less well known are the behind-the-scenes tidbits focusing on internecine battles between the host, the writing and producing team, and the on-air correspondents. A number of Daily Show staffers open up about the confrontation between Stewart and Wyatt Cenac, which unfolded after the black correspondent accused Stewart of racial insensitivity for his on-air impersonation of former presidential candidate Herman Cain. And Dan Bakkedahl admits to petulance over feeling slighted by Stewart, though his defensiveness has Bakkedahl, even now, sounding more self-absorbed and peevish than regretful.

Stewart also takes direct aim at Comedy Central for its apparent naïveté regarding contract negotiations. When Stephen Colbert’s contract came up for renewal in 2012, he was willing to sign on for four more years of The Colbert Report, guaranteeing his participation through the 2016 election. But the network balked and signed him to a two-year deal, allowing him to depart for CBS when David Letterman retired from hosting The Late Show. In a similar vein, when Stewart took the summer of 2013 off to film Rosewater, he handed the anchor reins to his heir apparent, John Oliver. But Comedy Central neglected to nail down an option to retain the British expat, who signed on with HBO for what became the hit This Week Tonight.

For anyone with an interest in media and the daily grind of producing a television program with brutal deadlines and often conflicting personalities, this is all highly interesting. But what is truly valuable is the way the book lays out the evolution of The Daily Show from its beginnings as a kind of ribald, National Lampoonesque parody program with original host Craig Kilborn to its increasingly angry and pointed political slant under Stewart. Simultaneous with the show’s growth in stature and reputation was an increased focus on hard politics and commentary. Stewart frequently replaced actors, musicians, and other entertainers with politicians or scientists as third-act guests. And in the years following the departures of Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert as correspondents, the program made concerted efforts to diversify its on-air talent pool, adding Cenac (briefly), Samantha Bee, Larry Willmore, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams, Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal, and Hassan Minhaj.

The Daily Show (the Book) makes it clear that the tone, focus, and shape of the show was directed and orchestrated by the host, whose increasing disgust at the cynical and war-mongering administration of George W. Bush was matched only by an equal disgust at the government’s abettors in the media. Though Donald Trump gets mentioned several times throughout (notably by a chastened and apparently repentant Glenn Beck), Stewart departed the field in August 2015, well before Trump secured the Republican nomination, to say nothing of the presidency itself. Revisiting George W. Bush’s two terms in office, given the weight of recent history, has a kind of bizarre nostalgia to it, as though recalling a more innocent time. And it’s hard not to acknowledge that in the last months of his tenure, Stewart treated Trump as a gift from the comedy gods, not an incipient threat. In so doing, he (and also Colbert on The Late Show) arguably enabled Trump’s rise, at least to some limited degree.

Still, it’s hard not to wish for Jon Stewart back in the anchor chair at The Daily Show as Trump’s inauguration approaches. Stewart’s replacement, South African native Trevor Noah, is competent and congenial, but lacks the bite that his predecessor possessed. There was a sharpness to Stewart’s delivery that was capable of piercing directly to the heart of whatever subject he was addressing, and those moments – such as his first night back after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the stirring monologue he delivered following the Charleston, South Carolina, mass church shooting – in which he dropped the ironic pose and spoke sincerely were among the most powerful pieces of political commentary in recent memory. We could certainly use him back in the saddle right about now.

An oral history of The Daily Show proves that not all fake news is created equal
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