The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jon Stewart changed journalism before journalism was ready to change

Jon Stewart's rise coincides almost perfectly with the growth of the modern Web -- he was the first true star of a new era of Internet journalism.

Jon Stewart leaves ‘The Daily Show’

Television host Jon Stewart is seen on stage during a taping of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in New York, Wednesday Nov. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Brad Barket)

When Jon Stewart appeared in his first episode of "The Daily Show" in January 1999, there was still talk of impeaching President Bill Clinton, Enron had (again) been named “one of America’s most innovative companies,” and the Internet was still young enough that Al Gore was pretending he had invented it.

As I write this, thousands of Web writers are furiously compiling Stewart’s best clips. This is 100 percent deserved: no American comedian has ever had more influence on our political culture, or contributed more to our knowledge of politics and policy.

But it’s also fair to say that no one in the last 20 years has done more to change journalism’s style than Stewart. That’s because "The Daily Show" was pretty crucial in shaping rhythm, style and distribution methods of today’s Web media. Stewart’s rise to fame coincides almost perfectly with the growth of what we think of as the modern Web, the blogosphere (whatever that means, anymore), and now the social media arena. He was the first true star of the Internet journalism era.

As Jon Stewart finished up 16 years of hosting “The Daily Show” in 2015, The Post looked at some of his most famous feuds. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

As Stewart rose to fame, media was changing, but so was America’s appetite for it. It was never inevitable that mass audiences could care about dry topics presidential signing statements or Tim Geithner’s house, or the Kyoto Protocol. "The Daily Show," even before the rise of blogs, dared to dwell on the day-to-day carnival of ridiculousness of our political culture; it was a new kind of meta-news cycle. When Bill Moyers asked Stewart in 2003 whether he was practicing a new form of journalism, here’s what he said:

“Well then that either speaks to the sad state of comedy or the sad state of news. I can't figure out which one. I think, honestly, we're practicing a new form of desperation. Where we just are so inundated with mixed messages from the media and from politicians that we're just trying to sort it out for ourselves …
I can't tell you how many times we'll run into a journalist and go, 'Boy, that's … I wish we could be saying that. That's exactly the way we see it and that's exactly the way we'd like to be saying that.' And I always think, 'Well, why don't you?'"

It’s worth noting that everyone is doing this kind of thing now -- and we don't even bother to call it blogging anymore. In the early and mid-2000s, what mass media commentary existed on policy was being dominated by a handful of emerging blogs. (Ben Smith has a great history of this era here.)

Writers like Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall and Markos Moulitsas, Ezra Klein, Ben Smith and a host of others would follow Stewart's lead in decoding the news. People like Arianna Huffington were starting to make big companies out of the kind of pointed, bloggy commentary that Stewart already offered four nights a week. Like "The Daily Show," each of these new sites had a take on news: each took their own stylistic, journalistic and political approaches to decoding what powerful people were telling us.

It was no small thing that "The Daily Show" was quick to become Internet-friendly. It was one of the first comedy shows to make embeddable video clips a real, workable thing. It put entire episodes online and it was one of the first TV shows that saw its distribution model buttressed by the Web. (Please recall that YouTube wasn’t founded until 2005, six years after Stewart took over and a year after Stewart’s epochal "Crossfire" takedown). When I worked at the Huffington Post in the late 2000s, posting the lead segment of "The Daily Show" was as mundane as making morning coffee. For HuffPost's audience, what Stewart said was often  more important than what the New York Times op-ed writers wrote.

Over the last few years, "The Daily Show" was still funny, even as it grew more routine and was distributed everywhere on social media. Stewart could still bring it -- the Eric Garner moment was perfect. But the show wasn’t crucial anymore, and it no longer felt as new. The media world had taken Stewart’s most basic impulses -- breaking down the biases, inherent fluffiness and navel-gazery of our political and pundit class -- and turned them into something ubiquitous.

In an era in which the Web generates instant takes on every gaffe or policy flub, Stewart’s nightly takes on the news began to feel a bit old. There are now a thousand professional bloggers and explainers and aggregators making Stewart’s points for him, calling out politicians before Stewart’s show went on the air. And there are a hundred researchers dredging up clips. If 2006’s “makaka” scandal happened today, Stewart would be the last to talk about it.

By now, 24-hour cable news, Stewart’s great shibboleth, is dying a slow death. His clips are now blasted out on social media the moment his show is over, making the show itself a lot less vital. (John Oliver’s long-form version of "The Daily Show" segments feel fresher. Fed on "The Daily Show" appetizers, we now want the full comedy steak.)

It’s hard to see someone else like Jon Stewart rising to fame in a media world that’s become so fractured, frantic and full of every possible flavor of instant news and commentary. Satire is a lot tougher in real time. Calling people out is harder when everyone is doing it.