Salon has released an excerpt from the new book Newsfail written by comedian Jamie Kilstein and reporter Allison Kilkenny which talks about Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show and postulates the theory that he is not doing America any favors. That is a surprising claim to level at Stewart who has been a respected name in news and comedy for many years and has been a theoretically balancing force to the partisanship of mainstream media. Stewart is well-known for taking shots at both sides of the political aisle and making fun of “real” news reporters for their biffs and ridiculousness. But for Kilstein and Kilkenny he is just another part of the mainstream’s misleading of the public and they are extremely critical of his Daily Show reportage. The authors are themselves a part of the media, hosting Citizen Radio, an independent, viewer supported news program. One would expect them to be on the same side as Jon Stewart, but instead the excerpt of their book questions his place in counterculture media.
Kilstein and Kilkenny have plenty of experience in being countercultural. Kilkenny has reported for The Nation and Truthout. She reported on the Occupy Movement when it was at its height and, as part of the Citizen Radio podcast team, lends her skills to that particular form of independent media on a regular basis. Her partner in crime and in life, Kilstein is a comedian with a penchant for news and has been praised by such greats as the late Robin Williams and spammed by the hate group “God Hates F–s.” While both have the requisite chops to pull off a comedic news program, they are not part of the mainstream media’s club and never have been. Their new book expresses their rejection of mainstream media and attempts to show where it has failed the American people. On the Citizen Radio’s website, a tagline reads “Independent radio that won’t lead you to war,” a reference to their accusation that mainstream media facilitated the debacle of the Iraq War.
When it comes to their beef with Jon Stewart, the issue seems to be that he is not independent enough. The excerpt on Salon concludes with “Never trust a show owned by Viacom to lead a counterculture revolution.” While Stewart has done a good job of being just a little against the mainstream, it is not good enough to avoid the pitfalls of the establishment. For Kilstein and Kilkenny who have pulled out all the stops in being countercultural, that conclusion seems obvious. And perhaps it is. It is true that Comedy Central and The Daily Show now constitute one of the best known names in satirical news, along with Stephen Colbert’s program. That and the fact of their corporate backing would seem to make the argument easy to make. If the issue is with how Jon Stewart funds his program, then it is true that there is no attempt at being independent. But that is not the entirety of the argument being made.
In the excerpt, the authors take issue with how Stewart’s comedy approaches the issues and try to show that it actually reaffirms the existing status quo. According to them the show has expressed contempt for people and organizations trying to be actively countercultural and effect change via such methods. Because of its apparent affiliation with liberal values, a connection that Stewart himself has admitted exists, The Daily Show became just another part of the mainstream hack job, right along with its corporate sponsorship. Just because it makes fun of both sides, they conclude, does not mean it is countercultural.
There are at least a few problems with Kilstein and Kilkenny’s argument, thought-provoking though they are. Some of their examples of why Jon Stewart is just another hack with no place in good media miss the point of satire. In the section about the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity they state that the “critique also seemed to be saying that any passion for reform whatsoever, no matter how grounded in reality, is uncalled for.” As part of their evidence, they draw on the call to action published by the show itself which talks about shouting being bad for one’s throat as well as counterproductive.
The problem, however, is that one line in that call to action completely destroys their argument. The rally organizers were looking for people “who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones heard.” This would seem to indicate not that the Rally to Restore Sanity was knocking passion for a cause, but that it was calling for a change in the form of debate from one where only people with big platforms and loud voices get heard in the realm of the public forum, to one where a reasonable process of debate involves enough civility to let quiet people, people who may not be activists, be heard. Stewart said as much to Rachel Maddow of MSNBC when he observed that “both sides have their way of shutting down the debate” and that the media has helped with that.
He seems to have a point. Media outlets like big stories with as much headline-making news as possible. When someone does something extreme in the name of a cause, that makes news and channels like FOX and MSNBC pick up on that. They may not pick up on the person who donates to a cause and volunteers for it and expresses themselves on Facebook in a civil manner. How often do local elections get covered in mainstream news that the nation sees? And yet the people who volunteer or who run for local office and may be quietly passionate about a cause never get heard at all. The hardliners on both sides of the political spectrum, however, do, even if they only happen to be locals who got on TV by accident.
The Rally to Restore Sanity was for those people who never get media coverage. And how did the team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do it? They did it by making normal people news. They used their own celebrity and the platforms they had in the media to give regular people a chance to show that they did not like having their voices ignored. And to a large extent it worked. In opposition to Glenn Beck’s partisan conservative rally, people came out of the word work to say that they thought that was a stupid way to debate and that they wanted something more reasonable to happen. And they did so with the passion that Kilstein and Kilkenny say that Jon Stewart ridicules.
In the end, Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny are probably right about Jon Stewart: he is not counterculture. He is not counterculture in the way that they are, but by participating in parts of the mainstream he has made it possible for some people to be involved in ways they otherwise were not. There is more in the excerpt than can be covered here. The authors of Newsfail also seem to miss the point of engaging in satire, especially when it came to The Daily Show’s coverage of the Occupy Movement, but that is alright. There will always be stylistic differences in people engaged in art, which is what both sides do with their respective endeavours. But when it comes down to asking if there is a place for Jon Stewart in political discourse, their conclusion gets it wrong. Viewers can trust Stewart and his show to be funny at everyone’s expense and to offer an opportunity to think about issues in a different way. Just because it is not Kilstein and Kilkenny’s way does not mean it is completely wrong.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury