If the Jon Stewart-hosted Daily Show was media criticism in the guise of comedy, it was a very particular kind of criticism of a very particular kind of media. Stewart and his merry band of satirists, for the most part, aimed their jokes at the bright and broad target of cable TV news: Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. And The Daily Show, itself a parody of a televised newsmagazine, was especially equipped to do that: If you’re going to mock something, you should, at a bare minimum, understand the way it works.
In the year-and-a-half since he left that hosting gig, though, Stewart seems to have taken a much broader view of the American press—and he has expanded his criticism in turn. Nowadays, Stewart simply talks about “the media”: the institution, the looming creature, the plural noun that is generally treated, revealingly, as a singular one. “The media,” technically, encompasses an extremely broad range of information and approaches and, indeed, mediums. It includes, technically, newspapers and magazines and radio shows and TV shows and blog posts and instas and snaps and tweets and tweets that have been turned into blog posts and instas and snaps. Its content can be created by professionals or by amateurs or by some combination thereof, under the auspices of individual passion or corporate necessity or social good or some lively combination thereof. And “the media”—the term covers both the producers and their products—can be made for purposes that range from the pure to the nefarious.
The point is that “the media,” in the United States as in many other places, is incredibly varied and complex and hard to define with any real degree of semantic satisfaction. (Did you know that, if you rearrange the letters of “the media,” you get the phrase “‘them’ idea”? It’s true! I read that on Anagrammer.com, which is in its own way part of “the media.”) Still, though, many treat it as a monolith. According to many—including those whose job it is to make “the media”—“the media” is a hulking beast that lurches its way across the American landscape, slobbering and smarming all over the innocent civilians in its path.
One more subscriber to that notion of American media seems to be, nowadays, Jon Stewart. On Monday, Stewart made a surprise appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. And he used a little of his time with his old Daily Show colleague first to make jokes about his absence from television (“Yes, I miss it! Stephen, I spend the whole day yelling about Trump to the animals”) and to make jokes about President Trump and his tempestuous relationship with the truth (“He’s lying on purpose. Do you know how I know? Because he constantly says the phrase ‘believe me’”).
Mostly, though, Stewart used his reappearance on Colbert’s CBS show to mock the media. To its “face.”
“Can I talk to the media for a moment?” Stewart asked. “Which one of these cameras goes out to the media?”
“That one goes straight to the media,” Colbert replied.
And then Stewart said this:
Hey guys, hey media. So, I heard Donald Trump broke up with you. Stings a little, doesn’t it? Finally thought you had met your match: a blabbermouth who is as thin-skinned and narcissistic as you are. Well, now it’s over and good riddance I say. Kick him to the curb.
Media, it is time for you to get your groove back, media. Because let’s face facts, you kind of let yourself go a little bit for these past few years. Put on a few pundits. Obsessing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week about this one guy. ‘What’s Donnie up to? Did he say anything about us? You think he’s gonna come on our show? Do you think he even likes us? He doesn’t even have to come on—he can just call us. Oh, Donnie, please let us know you’re okaaaaaaay.’
And the whole time you’re chasing after Donnie, the rest of us are thinking, ‘Can’t you see he’s an asshole?’ ’No,’ you try to defend him. ‘No, that’s just Primaries Donald. That’s just Election Donald. You’ll see. We can change him. He’ll get presidential.’
Yeah, how’d that work out? And do you know why? Because 70-year-old men don’t get less cranky or racist as time goes by.
He added, by way of conclusion:
Here’s my point, media. Here’s my point. This breakup with Donald Trump has given you, the media, an amazing opportunity for self-reflection and improvement. Instead of worrying about whether Trump is un-American or if he thinks you are the enemy, or if he is being mean to you or if he is going to let you go back into the briefings, do something for yourself. Self-improvement, take up a hobby. I recommend journalism. You know, I think this breakup is going to be the best thing that ever happened to you.
He makes, as always, some good points. But also: Who, exactly, is he talking to? “The media,” technically, includes Drudge and Limbaugh and Alternet and Democracy Now! and NPR along with US Weekly and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and CNN and, yes, The Atlantic. It includes amateur media-makers on Tumblr. It includes the conspiracy-peddlers on Infowars. Stewart, presumably, isn’t talking to all of those media-makers, but by falling into the trap of mocking “the media,” he is also, essentially, talking to none of them. He gives the impression of talking points more than actual points.
Stewart, during his time at The Daily Show, gained a reputation for nuance and thoughtfulness on top of all his righteously indignant partisanship. He and his team researched their segments, deeply; they made, generally, an effort to understand the things they were mocking, if only for the sake of mocking them. The comedian, however, in the public appearances he has made since he left The Daily Show, has abandoned that nuance. In December, in a talk at—yes—the New York Times, Stewart blamed “the media” for its role in, as one reviewer put it, “helping to create what was nothing short of an embarrassing, albeit entertaining, circus of an election.” He compared the media to “crack dealers.”
And, now, he’s jokingly talking “to” “the media” to advise “the media” to … not give journalistic coverage to the president of the United States? To ignore the chief executive, either despite or because of his immense power, and simply “kick him to the curb”? Sure, “the media” should, as Stewart suggested, do “journalism.” But, to the extent that Stewart is offering real criticism, rather than adding himself to the long list of people who have gotten easy laughs by treating “the media” as a punching bag … what, exactly, does he mean by that?
It’s extremely easy to mock the media, whether mainstream or lamestream or something in between. The president does it (usually on the very TV shows and radio programs and in the very Breitbart stories that are so very much a part of “the media” in question). The public does it. I do it, and I’m a card-carrying member of the lamestream media! (Even our cards are lame!) And, now, Jon Stewart. Which, hey. Mock away. But mockery is most compelling when it’s well-informed and nuanced. It’s most effective when it can see its target clearly. Yes, “the media” can be better. But perhaps it’s time for all of us in “the media”—which includes me and Stephen Colbert and possibly you and definitely Jon Stewart—to get our grooves back.