I met Walter Cronkite once. He was a jerk.
The occasion was the 100th anniversary of my college newspaper, the Daily Texan, where Cronkite had worked as a young man before dropping out of the University of Texas. It was 1999, and the possibility of “President George W. Bush” was starting to settle into the brains of American liberals like a particularly malignant neuroblastoma. Cronkite, completely oblivious to the possibility that he was talking to someone with views at variance with his own — he was one of those media liberals who “claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views,” as WFB once put it — went on, knowingly and smugly, about the Christian crazies who were behind it all. This was about half a decade before his public pronouncements became full-blown bonkers, suggesting to Larry King that Karl Rove was manipulating Osama bin Laden in order to influence U.S. elections.
So when Don Aucoin writes in the Boston Globe that “what Walter Cronkite was to an earlier generation — an utterly trusted voice — Stewart has been to millennials,” I am inclined to agree, though I take from that sad fact something other than what Aucoin intends. Cronkite, for all of his failings and his utterly conventional liberalism, was a real reporter. (And sort of a bad-ass as well, at one point manning a machine gun while covering World War II. I do hope that Brian Williams doesn’t pick up that story, too.) Stewart, who has announced his pending retirement from The Daily Show, is only an intellectual parasite, echoing the conventional liberalism of the old-line media establishment without doing any of the work.
Say what you will about the biases of the New York Times, the Associated Press, or even up-and-comers such as BuzzFeed: They do real work. I’m annoyed by the Times on the average weekday as intensely as the next reactionary, but at the same time the paper’s investigative work on Rikers Island, to take one recent example, has been invaluable. BuzzFeed may butter its gluten-free bread with dopey features (“These Before-and-Afters Prove That Every Guy Looks Better with A Beard,” etc.), but it’s doing real reporting, too. And I suspect that BuzzFeed is starting to develop a keen appreciation for the fact that high-quality journalism requires real work on the part of the producers and — this is the hard part — real work on the part of consumers, too. There’s a reason People (weekly) has 20 times the circulation of National Review (fortnightly) and 70 times the circulation of The New Republic (monthly).
Jon Stewart’s genius — “and for once that overused word is appropriate,” Aucoin of the Globe insists — is that he provides intellectually lazy people with an excuse for forgoing the hard work of informing themselves at anything but the most superficial level about political events. Human beings being what they are, there will always be an acute need for humor in our political discourse; Stewart’s contribution has been to substitute humor — and an easy, vapid, shallow species of humor at that — for the discourse itself, through what Jim Treacher deftly described as his “clown nose on, clown nose off” approach to commentary: When it comes to Obamacare, the minimum wage, or the national debt, you don’t have to get the economics as long as you get the joke.
Thus the phenomenon of “Jon Stewart Destroys X.” Contemporary progressivism has largely given up on the project of answering conservative arguments and instead concentrates its efforts on discrediting those who make the arguments. How many times have you heard that tea-party protester carrying a placard reading “Keep Government Out of My Medicare!” — an episode that is at least partly fictitious, incidentally, although Representative Robert Inglis (R., S.C.) reports being told roughly that at a town-hall meeting — cited as though it were the definitive answer to criticisms of the Affordable Care Act? The implicit argument — that conservative critics of the ACA don’t understand how Medicare works — is of course pure horsepucky, as anybody who has read Avik Roy, Reihan Salam, or Ramesh Ponnuru knows. The argument is false, but the joke is a good one, and so the joke prevails over the reality. And that’s Jon Stewart’s real legacy: a Democratic electorate that neither knows nor cares that “I can see Russia from my house!” is a sentence uttered not by Sarah Palin but by Tina Fey pretending to be Sarah Palin.
And then of course there is the matter of grotesque and inexcusable intellectual dishonesty, e.g., unscrupulously editing interviews to make Jonah Goldberg look like he can’t land a punch while doing the opposite with Elizabeth Warren. Point that out, though, and it’s clown-nose-on time again: You can’t apply any meaningful standard of probity to me — I’m a comedian! Now, here’s what you should think about tax policy . . .
One of the strange things I’ve encountered in writing about Jon Stewart et al. is that when I criticize progressives for getting their news from a comedy program, the usual answer is “Why isn’t there a conservative version of The Daily Show? Huh? Huh?” As though that erased the stupidity of relying on a comedy show for news and insight. It is true that conservatives have tried — and failed, utterly — to do what Stewart does. There are funny conservatives and funny liberals, but they tend to be amusing in different ways, which is why liberal efforts to replicate Rush Limbaugh’s success have failed in the same way as conservative efforts to replicate Jon Stewart’s. It takes a left-wing sensibility to have Lenny Bruce’s career; it takes a right-wing sensibility to have Evelyn Waugh’s.
And it takes a bottomless well of stupidity to rely on either mode of humor for a meaningful map of the world.
But ignorance is the default position, which is one of the reasons why conservatives are at a perennial disadvantage when it comes to taking policy ideas to the general public. To understand the conservative view, you have to know a little something about supply and demand, about what prices do in a modern economy, about unintended consequences, etc. “But if you don’t want to raise the minimum wage you hate poor people and love Wall Street greedheads you racist sexist homophobe!” is, by way of comparison, pretty persuasive among the sort of people inclined to take instruction from Jon Stewart. And that sort of discourse is, unfortunately, not restricted to comedy shows. It is the reason that people like Jamelle Bouie and Amanda Marcotte have prominent media platforms, their respective professional obligations being 1) call something/someone racist and 2) call something/someone sexist, i.e., narrowly focused discrediting campaigns substituted for argument — Jon Stewart minus the laughs. That Bouie, among others, is so completely blind to that fact is a source of some humor in its own right.
Stewart’s retirement announcement coincides with the self-inflicted public humiliation of NBC’s Brian Williams, whose accounts of the dangers he has faced as a newsman are even less grounded in reality than is Stewart’s shtick. Inevitably, there are those who have suggested that Stewart should simply take over for the “real” anchorman — that the Walter Cronkite of the Millennial generation should have the same sort of job that Cronkite himself once had. I don’t disagree, but that Jon Stewart may accurately be described as the Walter Cronkite of our times is a credit neither to him nor to Cronkite — and least of all is it a credit to his audience.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.