How Satirical News Became The Media’s Social Conscience

Yesterday, Comedy Central officially announced that Trevor Noah would be taking over “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart leaves later this year. After 16 years as the host of Comedy Central’s now-iconic satirical news show, Stewart has gone from B-movie actor to one of the most trusted figures in media today. His departure from the show he redefined and made a powerhouse influencer is a lot to take in for those who grew up watching him: What is “The Daily Show” without Jon Stewart?

But maybe the larger question is why does it matter? “The Daily Show,” along with John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” and “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” are just comedic shows lampooning the news. Or at least, that’s how they position themselves in the media landscape. In practice, the place these shows have in the larger dialogue around crucial issues is much more nuanced and far more important.

Although today satirical news is a staple of our culture, with Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” having already gone through an entire life cycle and others popping up regularly, “The Daily Show” truly pioneered the hard-hitting-yet-laugh-out-loud-funny format that we’re now so familiar with. “The Daily Show” existed before Jon Stewart took over for Craig Kilborn, but it was under his leadership that it became a stop for presidential candidates and foreign dignitaries. It also launched the careers of Colbert, Larry Wilmore, and John Oliver, along with numerous others like Steve Carrell, Samantha Bee, and Jessica Williams. Headlines likening Stewart to our generation’s Walter Cronkite might have been tongue-in-cheek, but it’s hard to see Stewart as anything but the Cronkite of satirical news.

The Cronkite comparison goes one step further, though. These are dark days for mainstream media, with fewer and fewer people trusting the primary networks. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, was able to carve out a trusted niche among liberals and young people, with 45 percent of those with liberal views trusting “The Daily Show” (the number nosedives to about 1 percent for conservatives). It’s easy to see why people would prefer satire to faux-breaking news. Stewart and the like have been able to cut to the core of issues in the United States by hacking away at the self-aggrandizing nature of politicians and pundits to get to the meat of a story. They are outsiders who have leveraged that status to throw rocks through the glass houses of power.

With Stewart stepping down, he is leaving satirical news in strong hands. Trevor Noah, a well-known South African comedian, will undoubtedly be able to make Stewart’s role his own. Larry Wilmore and John Oliver, both with relatively new shows, have routinely made headlines with their takes on controversial issues. Oliver, with his British accent and the freedom that comes with a show on HBO, has been able to make 10-minute diatribes the cornerstone of his program. He, however, takes things further than Jon Stewart ever did. Oliver has posted billboards in foreign countries, launched viral hashtags, and made the chairman of the FCC clarify whether or not he is a dingo. These monologue-style expositions on topics ranging from net neutrality to the legal fallout of unpaid tickets usually pop up across the Internet the day after airing, and invariably strike at something we all should really know more about.

And that gets at the heart of why satirical news is so important and effective. Unlike CNN or Fox or MSNBC, Stewart, Wilmore, Colbert, and Oliver can look into the camera and ask, “What is this bullshit?” They can use humor to underline serious issues, call out nonsense when they see it, and bring puffed up public figures back down to Earth with a segment skewering their repeated use of offensive Irish accents. Is it any wonder that we would prefer satire in the face of an often “Alice in Wonderland”-esque political landscape? When faced with the absurd daily, satire offers a reality check.

Although “The Daily Show” will invariably change under the leadership of a new host, the part it has played in reshaping the media landscape is undeniable. The bevy of shows that have found a place on TV due in large part to Stewart and the show he helmed are now a staple in our political culture, and one we desperately need. Since we can’t really beat those in power, we might as well laugh at them.

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