Back in the ancient days of television—before TiVo and on-demand streaming, when viewers adjusted strange devices called "rabbit ears" and were often forced to walk all the way across the room to change the channel—a guy named Walter Cronkite was considered America's Anchorman. He was (the ancients say) cool and competent and somehow comforting. Yes, he could show emotion sometimes, wiping his eyes (as he did when he told the world that John F. Kennedy had died), or chuckling with joy (as he did when men landed on the moon). But he was first and foremost a newsman, and most of the country (fairly or no) trusted him. When he signed off with the words, "And that's the way it is," most viewers believed him.
It's a much different America we live in today. Fewer people get their news from broadcast television, and fewer still believe that the journalists who appear there are—or even can be—impartial.
We all still need an Anchorman though. Someone to share the stories that matter with us. Someone to break down the difficult stuff for us. So how did the arguable heir to Cronkite's title fall not to Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer or even Rush Limbaugh, but to Jon Stewart?
Stewart, you see, is no newsman, as he'd himself admit. He's a comedian, and his Comedy Central program The Daily Show claims to be nothing more than "the most trusted name in fake news." But over the last 17 years, many who've rarely picked up a newspaper or watched a regular newscast have gotten their daily dose of news from Stewart and his band of merry pranksters—on television or, increasingly, online.
As a forum for topical comedy, which is born out in its late-night talk show setup, with in-studio guests, an opening monologue, etc., The Daily Show proves to be a smart, sharp outlet—peddling postmodern satire with confidence and flair. Stewart is a likable (if somewhat smug) host, and his team of correspondents are often funnier than anyone on Saturday Night Live these days. Some academics believe he and channel mate (and former correspondent) Stephen Colbert are heirs to a long satirical tradition that runs through Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, all the way back to ancient Greece.
But since we're talking about at least some semblance of the news here, the question has to be asked: Is Jon Stewart fair and balanced? While his comedy takes shots at both the left and right on occasion, there's no question his politics tilt toward the liberal end of the spectrum. No more than there's any question that his humor can often descend into crass juvenility. One minute you can have a cogent riff on a Supreme Court decision, the next can be filled with jokes about oral sex.
Could Mr. Cronkite have even conceived of such a thing?
Stewart riffs on a number of laws he says are designed to suppress Democratic voter turnout in the upcoming election, calling them an electoral version of "c‑‑kblocking." He compares asking prospective voters to show picture IDs the equivalent of pouring acid in peanut butter to make sure it's "dragonbone free." Sure, some may die from the acid, he says, "but that's the price you pay to prevent something that doesn't happen."
The Daily Show "news" crew prepares to work the Republican and Democratic conventions by descending on a model train convention in New Jersey—assaulting convention-goers with a variety of aggressive, leading questions. One of the "reporters" throws a tiny boxcar to the ground to illicit "real emotion." (She succeeds.) Another wonders where a Planned Parenthood facility is in a miniature town—pointing to a miniscule alley where abortions will be performed if one isn't built right away.
About a dozen f- and s-words are bleeped. God's name is misused. Stewart produces a cache of contraband, including a large dildo, a drug bong, a book on Adolph Hitler and a bag of marijuana.
Chick-fil-A dominates the top of the show—the day after people flocked to the fast-food chain in support of its support of traditional marriage.
The day was greeted by some as the "cluckopalypse," according to Stewart, mocking folks on both sides of the issue: He wonders why an organization would oppose same-sex marriage it has no problem altering God's "chicken design," then laughs about an MSNBC pundit's remarks related to homosexuals eating at the restaurant being "chicken-eating Judas[es]." (Onscreen, Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper is altered to include Chick-fil-A cartons in front of Judas). Stewart makes it clear that he supports gay marriage … while taking politicians to task for trying to bar the eatery from building in their cities. "I'm not sure which amendment covers that, but it's probably in the top 1," he says.
In the midst of this punditry, Stewart also goes on an extended, painfully crass, double entendre-filled scree revolving around a word that can be used to refer to a male chicken and a male body part. He says it repeatedly, and it's not bleeped. About 15 f- and s-words are bleeped. Stewart and others say "h‑‑‑" and misuse God's name.