Sometime in the course of writing his latest book, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz concluded that those involved in the network news business were united in envy—and veneration—of "fake news." In Reality Show, his gossipy dissection of the "last great television news war," Kurtz writes that "Everyone, even big-time anchors, wanted to be [The Daily Show host] Jon Stewart now, or at least do a reasonably good imitation." Before dismissing this a a throwaway line meant merely as a hat tip to the "fake news" host he clearly admires, consider that while promoting the book on his CNN show Reliable Sources, Kurtz reiterated the point, saying that "the biggest influence on the anchors these days" is Stewart.
As Kurtz points out, the nightly newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS are suffering from diminishing influence and audiences, though they're still the media "megaphone" to beat, pulling in a combined 25 million viewers per night. Impressive, he notes, but significantly lower than the 35 million average of just ten years ago. Of course, the proliferation of DIY new media outlets—YouTube, blogs and podcasts—have cut deep into big media's market share and because of this, the networks have become the refuge of the older, less technically savvy news consumer—as demonstrated by the endless health-related stories—while not-so-secretly coveting the younger, hipper viewer. They want to engage this recalcitrant demographic without having to go slumming, without covering every minor tragedy that befalls Britney, every Malawian adopted by Madonna. Stewart manages to both keep it high-brow and keep the 20-35s watching.
But another seemingly contradictory theme dominates Reality Show. Get an anchor on the other side of the microphone, and they will inevitably tell you, perhaps in a circuitous way, that they crave respectability. The revolving cast of network anchors all fancy themselves Morrow-like newsmen who see celebrity-centric news as an affront to the profession. Brian Williams, Kurtz writes, hated reporting on "tabloid melodramas." Dan Rather too, who while at CBS refused to cover salacious stories that his competitors were flogging. Peter Jennings, a college dropout, "disdained certain stories that had mass appeal," specifically his network's coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. Bob Schieffer bristled at his network's weak attempt to draw in younger viewers; he "wanted to do Cronkite's show," Kurtz writes. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, the Barbie and Ken of ABC News, "saw themselves as reporters first and disdained what they called chitchat."
So the hyper-coiffed guardians of seriousness disdain fake news stories, but envy The Daily Show. This isn't a contradiction. Stewart isn't, as Kurtz's chapter title suggests, engaged in "fake news." That's what The Onion does. What Jon Stewart does is opinion filtered through clever jokes; ruthlessly effective—and often very funny—satire. In effect, Brian Williams and Co. desire to be freed of the constraints of objectivity, to be able to pounce on hypocritical politicians and pundits. Kurtz marvels that The Daily Show often "managed to do what the network newscasts had not, which was make the administration look ridiculous." (He also points out that NBC has used Daily Show clip compilations in its news broadcast.)
But besides skewering smarmy politicians for laughs, what is Stewart's journalistic philosophy? Indeed, the man who told Tucker Carlson that he needed to attend journalism school (without recognizing that the bow-tied conservative isn't that kind of journalist) has a lot to say about how the media should work. For all of his ducking and weaving, and his disingenuous claims that he's but a comic pretending to be a newsman, Stewart aggressively engages those with whom he disagrees, and frequently makes grandiloquent pronouncements about the intellectual atrophy that has befallen America's political and media classes. Stewart, the comedy media critic, says he shouldn't be taken seriously—until it's time to get serious.
In his now-notorious appearance on CNN's Crossfire, he admonished the "partisan hacks" (his phrase) Carlson and Paul Begala, pleading with them to "stop hurting America" and stop "helping the politicians and the corporations." "You have a responsibility," he said, "to the public discourse." In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (whom Stewart doesn't consider a partisan hack, since there is much on which they agree), he grumbled that "The cornerstone of politics these days is grievance." The American "political industry is devoted to the electing and un-electing of officials, and that can be corrosive." When Hardball host Chris Matthews appeared on The Daily Show to flog his book, Stewart, to the glee of bloggers across the partisan divide, let him have it—though, as with the pronouncements above, it wasn't exactly clear what "it" was. Matthews book Life's a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success, he said, "strikes me as a self-hurt book, if you will."
What any of this means is anyone's guess. But Stewart's studio audience—who would explode into fits of cheers if the host denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz—and his network boosters love that he's sticking it to the chattering classes, no matter how incoherent the insult.
At the end of Reality Show, one is left thinking: If Stewart and his network anchor groupies are so concerned about the coarsening of American political debate, the easiest course of action would be to clean up their own shows by not inviting on "partisan hacks" like Chris Matthews. But, for all their bluster, they too are beholden to sinister corporations. And contrary to their endless complaining, America hardly suffers from a dearth of quality news sources.
Indeed, compared to Europe, this country is doing pretty well. It's almost tabloid newspaper free, with a bifurcated media that generally separates celebrity gossip and news into separate publications—although there are exceptions like the New York Post. In Britain, the three highest circulating daily newspapers (The News of the World, The Sun and The Daily Mail) are aggressively low-brow, a mix of top-heavy women and conjecture-heavy, populist reporting. The country's parliament, often praised as an honest, if overly raucous, chamber of debate from which America could learn, is Crossfire on steroids (and with even less honesty and more partisan hackery). The largest-selling paper on the continent is the ridiculous German daily Bild, a tabloid whose softcore front page make its British cousins seem downright priggish.
None of this matters, though. That America's media isn't sick; that Mr. Stewart's idealized media landscape is not only utopian, but undesirable to most news consumers; that the media most certainly does not have a "responsibility to the public discourse;" all of this is beside the point. For Stewart, it is important that both television and print media be made a sort of public trust that enlightens the people through advocacy journalism and exposing the forked tongues of smarmy politicians. (You might, at this point, have noticed that this type of ideological and investigative journalism already exists—in spades.)
As Kurtz writes in Reality Show, the comedian is "obsessed with the question of why journalists couldn't find ways to report the 'truth.'" But Stewart has a lot to learn about the news if he thinks there is one "truth" to be reported. And the networks have a lot to learn if they see The Daily Show as a model.
Michael Moynihan is an associate editor for reason.