I was as shocked as everyone at the news that Jon Stewart plans to step down from The Daily Show. I have not yet seen his announcement on last night's show, but I understand that he cast it, in part at least, as a feeling that he's had his (sixteen-year!) run and that it's time, now, to make space for someone else to have a chance. And, too, that he wants to become reacquainted with his family.
Good reasons, both. But I wonder if he also shares that feeling of being overly caught up in an identity of his own creation? I know from my own experience that it's sometimes necessary to leave a part of me behind, in order to be able to create something new. It happened recently with Stewart's colleague, Stephen Colbert, in a move that might well have resonated with the host of The Daily Show.
In any event, I'm one among millions who will sad to see him go. At a time of widespread mistrust of the media, it's not so odd that a skillful satirist like Stewart, who makes no bones about speaking truth to power, would come closer than straight reporters to inheriting the "most trusted" Walter Cronkite mantle. As he pointed out in the previous night's installment on the pillorying of NBC News anchor Brian Williams, the near universal abdication of critical responsibility with which the national news media greeted the invasion of Iraq was in itself reason enough for our current distrust.
And the reasons have piled up since. With media bought and paid for by corporate interests--and by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes--we news consumers are right to be skeptical of their objectivity. Ellie and I were among those two hundred thousand plus who crowded the Washington Mall on the occasion of the Stewart/Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity." We came there, as I suspect many of those people did, not for the comedy but for the truth, that a virulent and deeply destructive form of madness has come to infect our political life as a nation.
In all this, as Stewart suggested, the lie that threatens to bring Brian Williams down seems like a relatively innocuous breach of trust--"a sin," as Stewart put it, rather than "a crime." It's worthy, surely, of no more than a self-righteous tut-tut from those of us (most, I dare say) who have practiced the not-so-subtle art of an exaggeration of the facts in order to make ourselves look better, braver, sexier, smarter, more worldly in our audience's eyes. The hypocritical, hot and breathless media pile-on reeks of Schadenfreude, that wonderfully descriptive German word whose pale equivalent is the English "malice." (The more literal translation is "joy in the harm" that comes to others.) Williams's elaboration of the truth seems to me a mild offense when compared with the bald-faced lies that are routinely broadcast on Fox News, manipulating public opinion with false "news" and misleading viewers with neither compunction nor apology.
There is something in our national psyche that loves to tear down the very reputations it conspires to create. It is a vituperative spirit that does us no great credit. It comes, in my view, not from a genuine dedication to the truth and an abhorrence of lies, but too often from a far less generous spirit of greed and envy. Brian Williams is only its most recent victim, albeit one of his own making. If we were to honestly examine our own deficiencies in the matter of truth and lies, we might be less quick in our condemnation of those we judge. While we're still on the subject of Comedy Central, we might all take a lesson from Larry Wilmore, who took over Colbert's spot with The Nightly Show: Wilmore's by-word is "keep it 100"--that is, 100 percent honest, 100 percent real. That commitment is not easy, and often, truthfully, embarrassing. But worthy of the challenge.