#8: “The Daily Show.” [TV Aughtrospective]

The past decade was a troubling one for the television news media. With the retirement, death and firing of the great anchor trifecta (Brokaw/Jennings/Rather) that ruled evening news for decades, the network nightly newscasts wound up with subpar anchor talent, content-light broadcasts and a complete loss of relevance. Sometimes it seemed like Katie Couric et al were just filling time between prescription drug ads. Cable news was not much better, as broadcasters realized the key to ratings success lay in entrenching a network as the cable option of choice for a particular ideological bent, while cynically laying claim to the revealed truth: thus Fox News, a conservative propaganda organ, loudly proclaimed that it was “fair and balanced.” At the bottom of the barrel were the local news shows from which most Americans got their news: these were often an appalling melange of sensationalized crime stories, touchy-feely human interest moments, and weather reports.

That’s not to say that the 2000s didn’t feature some terrific television journalists doing excellent work: but unfortunately, this was often the exception, not the rule. On one critical issue after another — the Iraq War and the economic apocalypse are the most troubling examples — the traditional outlets often spouted conventional wisdom and anonymously-sourced nonsense instead of aggressively questioning the courses of action that led our nation into needless war and financial ruin.

Into this breach stepped a most unlikely team of comedians, who were neither trained journalists nor staunch ideologues. Their biting criticism, aggressive research, and brilliant satire slashed through the mainstream media noise machine. While many in the news media saw them as a threat, quickly pointing out their own journalistic shortcomings, this argument completely missed the point. The comedians that ran “The Daily Show” were so successful in lampooning the news media because, by and large, the news media had abdicated the trust that the public had once placed in them.

“The Daily Show” was a consistently funny and thought-provoking show that delivered the decade’s best media criticism and repeatedly drew attention to the elephants in the room that were poised to trample us all. We deem it the 8th best television program of the aughts.

When Jon Stewart took over “The Daily Show” from original host Craig Kilborn and creator Lizz Winstead, he inherited a show that was mostly about finding gullible rubes to mock with straight-faced news media style interviews, while asking celebrity guests “Five Questions.” Many people thought the show was going to go downhill after Kilborn’s departure, including original correspondents Brian Unger, A. Whitney Brown and Beth Littleford, who couldn’t flee the set fast enough (for, it turned out, careers as actors in commercials. Doh!). Momentously, Stewart brought former Onion editor Ben Karlin on board to run the writing team, and the two of them transformed the show into a national-news-focused program that lacerated the weak and lazy reporting of television newspeople on a nightly basis.

Beginning with the 2000 election, which famously degenerated into confusion and chaos after different networks called Florida for different candidates and then flip-flopped around, “The Daily Show” found its stride and began picking off targets one by one. The show spent the better part of eight years blasting the incompetence and Orwellian double-talk of the Bush administration, at a time when most television news sources merely parroted the White House’s propaganda. Stewart singlehandedly destroyed CNN’s corrosive “Crossfire” show after an appearance in which he demanded that the hosts “stop hurting America.” He set an ambush when MSNBC political talking-head Chris Matthews stopped by the set on a book tour, taking umbrage at Matthews’ callous take on politics: when Matthews yelped “You’re trashing my book!”, Stewart replied, “I’m not trashing your book, I’m trashing your philosophy of life.” After financial network CNBC completely failed to predict the financial meltdown of 2008 and then stirred populist outrage at the bailouts, “The Daily Show” opened up the guns on them, culminating in an appearance by a severely chastened Jim Cramer, who submitted himself to a withering critique from Stewart. By the end of the decade, the show’s power and influence was undeniable.

It’s difficult to find embeddable clips of The Daily Show — Viacom blasts them off the web every chance they get — but here’s one we managed to track down. This clip features Jon Stewart calling out Bill O’Reilly for Obama-related fear-mongering in an excerpt re-aired on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

It’s impossible to praise this show without mentioning its stable of brilliant and gifted correspondents. “The Daily Show” became an SNL-style launching pad for major comic careers throughout the 2000s. The list of legendary correspondents ranges from Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, whose hilarious “Even Stephven” segments presaged their future fame, to the Corddrey brothers’ sibling-rivalry hilarity, to Marine Rob Riggle and his brilliant Iraq reports, to the great John Hodgman, Lewis Black, John Oliver, Aasif Mandvi, Samantha Bee, and many more. One of the show’s most recent breakout stars is Ed Helms, seen here doing a segment about winning over the Muslim world entitled “What’s it Gonna Take?”

No less a traditional-media organ than the New York Times recently sang the praises of “The Daily Show” in a manner that highlights its equal-opportunity assault on conventional wisdom:

Following 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the show focused more closely not just on politics, but also on the machinery of policy making and the White House’s efforts to manage the news media. Mr. Stewart’s comedic gifts — his high-frequency radar for hypocrisy, his talent for excavating ur-narratives from mountains of information, his ability, in Ms. Corn’s words, “to name things that don’t seem to have a name” — proved to be perfect tools for explicating and parsing the foibles of an administration known for its secrecy, ideological certainty and impatience with dissenting viewpoints.

Over time, the show’s deconstructions grew increasingly sophisticated. Its fascination with language, for instance, evolved from chuckles over the president’s verbal gaffes (“Is our children learning?” “Subliminable”) to ferocious exposés of the administration’s Orwellian manipulations: from its efforts to redefine the meaning of the word “torture” to its talk about troop withdrawals from Iraq based on “time horizons” (a strategy, Mr. Stewart noted, “named after something that no matter how long you head towards it, you never quite reach it”).

For all its eviscerations of the administration, “The Daily Show” is animated not by partisanship but by a deep mistrust of all ideology. A sane voice in a noisy red-blue echo chamber, Mr. Stewart displays an impatience with the platitudes of both the right and the left and a disdain for commentators who, as he made clear in a famous 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,” parrot party-line talking points and engage in knee-jerk shouting matches. He has characterized Democrats as “at best Ewoks,” mocked Mr. Obama for acting as though he were posing for “a coin” and hailed MoveOn.org sardonically for “10 years of making even people who agree with you cringe.”

A study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Pew research center, noted:

Stewart has always insisted that his show isn’t journalism and given its comedic core, its blurring of truth and fiction, and its ignoring of many major events, that is true in a traditional sense.

But it’s also true that, at times, The Daily Show aims at more than comedy. In its choice of topics, its use of news footage to deconstruct the manipulations by public figures and its tendency toward pointed satire over playing just for laughs, The Daily Show performs a function that is close to journalistic in nature—getting people to think critically about the public square. In that sense, it is a variation of the tradition of Russell Baker, Art Hoppe, Art Buchwald, H.L. Mencken and other satirists who once graced the pages of American newspapers.

When asked by the NYT how his show does such a good job catching people in contradictions, Stewart retorted that his technique was simple: “a clerk and a video machine.” But the true technique of “The Daily Show” is slightly more complex than that. Its greatness comes from (a) paying attention to those contradictions and inconsistencies, (b) shining a light on them whenever possible, and using the target’s own words to convict them, and (c) doing so in a way that’s frankly hilarious. The evidently liberal-leaning staff was of course on fire when attacking the hapless Bushies, but over the past year they’ve also proven adept at nailing left-wing crews like the Obamaniacs, ACORN and climate-change scientists with their staple gun of satire.

Bonus clip: Stewart catches the odious Bill Kristol in a complete inconsistency on the topic of government-run health care.

In some ways it’s a sad thing, but this little Comedy Central show has given us more critical reasoning on the subject of national news and politics than any other program on TV over the past decade. With a nightly broadcast that’s just as informative on those topics as any network newscast, “The Daily Show” helps its viewers to see through the sheen of “spin” that obscures the workings of the American government.

As Stewart and Stephen Colbert noted in a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, the messes we’re getting ourselves into as a nation require the critical thinking skills that most media broadcasts completely fail to encoruage:

Do you think the country would be better off if the Republicans or the Democrats were running it?

STEWART: I have no idea.

COLBERT: I wouldn’t mind finding out what the options are.

STEWART: Yeah. It’s sad that there are only those two choices. I think we’d be better off if you had a sense that people were making decisions based less on their future political considerations and more on what they believed were in the best interests of the country and the world.

Do you think anybody does that on the political scene?

STEWART: If they are, they’re disguising it pretty well.

Your producer, Ben Karlin, said that doing fake news has given him a new appreciation for the Bush administration’s skills in faking reality. Do you feel that way?

STEWART: Yeah. No matter what happens, rain, sleet or snow, they see whatever they want to see. People criticize our show for breeding cynicism, but there’s nothing at all disingenuous about what we’re doing. If anything is cynical, it’s suggesting that your policy has never been “stay the course” when we have thousands of hours of tape showing you using “stay the course” as a talking point. I don’t worry about this generation of young people. They seem to be far more sophisticated and interesting than I remember myself being at that age. I’m more worrying about my generation. We’re digging such a hole for these cats, they will have to be exceptional just to get out of it.

“The Daily Show” makes it look easy to dissect the day’s news while mixing in a lumberjack-sized portion of laughs. It isn’t. This show did yeoman’s work in the aughts, a time when our nation’s discourse was besieged by distortions, lies and other varieties of spin. For that, all thinking Americans owe “The Daily Show” a sincere thanks.

TV Aughtrospective:
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#3: “Lost.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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