Over his nearly 17 years as host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart distinguished himself as the country’s most brilliant media critic, especially on the micro-beat of Fox News and CNN. He and his clip-consuming staff found the fault lines, contradictions and blowhardiness of pundits across the land, packaging them all in tight segments with punchlines.
Though this particular species of media criticism has pretty much vanished, the energy behind it is still chugging along.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and comedian Dave Chappelle, Stewart essentially credited President Trump for strategically manipulating the U.S. media. “I think the journalists have taken it personally,” said Stewart of Trump’s endless attacks on journalism over the past few years. “They’re personally wounded and offended by this man. He baits them and they dive in. And what he’s done well, I thought, is appeal to their own narcissism, to their own ego … and the journalists stand up and say, ‘We are noble, we are honorable, how dare you, sir.’ And they take it personally. And now he’s changed the conversation to not that his policies are silly or not working or any of those other things. It’s all about the fight.”
Amanpour pointed out that the abuse from the White House raises the “specter of violence.” To which Stewart replied, “But you’re not used to it. Think of the communities of color. Think of Muslims. Think of black communities, people … Think of the lives that they’ve been leading under this.”
Fair point — the experience of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria provides a tidy example of just this phenomenon. While news outlets cycled through the meretricious Trump mini-scandals following the storm’s 2017 blow to the island, deep coverage of the suffering there was scant. More robust, though, was the media’s response to the separation earlier this year of families and children at the border. Round-the-clock news reports documented every wrinkle of that crisis.
There is a weakness in Stewart’s argument, however. He attempts a distinction between Trump’s “policies” and his attacks on the media, when in fact his attacks on the media are his most consistent policy. Those attacks started in the first days of his campaign and have only intensified. Though he has publicly explored both sides of many traditional policy issues, he has been steadfast and undaunted in ripping the media for political gain.
And the results of that policy are emerging day by day. Just last week, Floridian Cesar Sayoc was charged with sending mail bombs to Democratic politicians and to CNN. His van carried a decal: “CNN sucks.” In August, a California man was arrested for allegedly conveying death threats to the Boston Globe. In a recent rally, Trump feted Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for having body-slammed a reporter for the Guardian. Threats against reporters everywhere are on the rise.
On Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, never to reemerge. A Turkish prosecutor insists he was strangled and dismembered while on the premises. He was a columnist for The Post. The international climate for journalists these days has turned grim. “Whether it’s the United States and Donald Trump calling them ‘the enemy of the people’ or it’s [President] Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines doing much the same thing … journalists are under threat,” David Kaye, a U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told the Associated Press.
Which is to say, responding to Trump’s attacks against the media isn’t a matter of optics or strategy or narcissism. It’s much more serious than that.