Goodbye, Jon Stewart.
In an article published Tuesday titled, “Jon Stewart’s secret White House visits,” POLITICO revealed “Stewart’s influence in Washington policy circles, including his work to help defeat a 2010 Senate Republican filibuster on legislation that gave billions of dollars in health benefits and compensation to the first responders who worked at the the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”
“Recognizing Stewart’s reach, Obama summoned Stewart to the White House in October 2011 and again in February 2014 for two private meetings to make his case on a range of administration priorities.”
Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz, whose final
appearance as host of The Daily Show airs tonight, caught no small amount of flak over this stuff — so much that he devoted a whole segment of the show this week to fighting off the criticism.
Hypocritical, irresponsible, unjournalistic — whatever you want to call it, this is what they’re saying about him, and maybe always have said. But then it’s always been as easy to laugh with Stewart as it was to criticize him. Did he make us dumber? Was he bad for America? Was he even really a journalist?
So I have to ask, to those who love Stewart and those who hate him, and especially those who have a problem with the above:
What is a journalist, to you?
I ask because when people usually talk about journalism and journalists and journalistic standards (of the ideal of objectivity to which they’re supposed to be held accountable), they’re usually talking about something vague and malformed — like talking about a Platonic gun, in the abstract, resting on some imaginary beside table, and us debating whether its laying there as object signifies goodness or sin.
So let me tell you what I know about journalism, as a journalist, among journalists: the idea that there exists a thing called a journalistic standard is a farce.
That there is some supposed unwritten code the people who call themselves journalists have always followed or should always follow, to the letter — lest they let themselves and their readers and their country down — is a terrible, insidious myth. The idea that there is such a thing as an independent, objective political journalist — or that any person who touches or reports on or even thinks about politics can not also be part of its game and likely its pawn — is misguided and holey and false.
People who are not journalists like to think about journalists the way people who are not doctors or lawyers or judges think about doctors or lawyers or judges — the way people who have never been wronged by doctors or lawyers or judges, due to these professionals’ unprofessionalism, still think of said professionals.
They think of, when they think of journalists — and please, correct me if I’m wrong — some chaste monast who enters the newsroom having checked personhood at the door, and thereafter, within, from dawn ‘til dusk, sculpts blindly for us exquisite and identical statues of our Lady Objectivity.
I think that’s why we want to think that journalists should, like, recuse themselves from situations that are too personal — the way doctors aren’t supposed to operate on family members, the way we expect that journalists aren’t supposed to have close, personal relationships with the targets of their criticism (hence the shock and appall over the Stewart-Obama revelations).
But there is no divorcing of character and experience and ideology from the work of producing news.
The worst newsperson of all is he who believes this to be untrue, who believes he can live two lives, and believes one of these lives to be bounded by some enchanted spell of neutralness.
But a journalist — like a gun — is not a neutral thing in the world.
We all know this, and it’s where any frustration with Stewart-as-journalist comes, I think: that journalists afford some perspectives, perceptions, and narratives more than they do others, affordances which have consequences in the real world, and that it’s irresponsible for a journalist to not know this, or worse, to know this and still think themselves saintly exception.
So then here is what I know about the best journalists, the ones worth reading and the ones worth emulating: not only do they know that their characters and experiences and ideologies will inevitably inform how they produce news, but then they also readily acknowledge it, and unabashedly own up to it, and then dutifully run with it.
They will write as though they have a duty to move and change their readers but then also live up to that duty outside their newsrooms, knowing that what they believe in — what they know fuels and drives and catalyzes what they write and say — is worth fighting for, wherever they find themselves.
So I’m totally comfortable with whatever Stewart does outside his newsroom, given it’s something I agree with: with platform comes power, and with power comes the ability to do good. (Or bad — and it’s when I consider what’s being done extrajournalistically by someone like Stewart as indeed bad that I stop being comfortable with it. Because it’s bad, but not because it breaks some mythical journalistic code.)
Because the 20th century’s experiment with objective journalism (the age of the Pentagon Papers and Walter Cronkite that modern newscritics love to gaze at through gold-colored glasses) is over, and it failed. It proved itself not to be enough. The world does not have time to let facts float unvarnished, held aloft by the mighty journalist. The world needs gale-force winds and tectonic shifts and volcanic thrust if it is to be really, actually moved to reckon with reality.
People are moved and changed by acrid invective, and impassioned rhetoric, and heart and soul and pain and complete and genuine belief.
And people are not moved or changed by the cold, hard, monotone of AP bulletins, nor of the tempered, subterranean, nigh-unvisible rage of ProPublicas and NPRs and Democracy Now!s.
People are moved and changed by acrid invective, and impassioned rhetoric, and heart and soul and pain — and all that nuanced, unfakeable stuff you learn to let into the news you produce by believing completely and genuinely, with all of yourself, that what you’re saying is worth saying (or else really really really wanting to pull the wool over your readers).
Wherein lies the rub: rhetoric will always threaten to obscure information, and yet it is also just as surely the most powerful vector for that information. So while information wants desperately to be free, the myth of the journalist and his supposed objectivity remain its heaviest shackles.
It turns out, all you need to be a journalist is the gall to call yourself one.
Because here’s the unvarnished truth about journalism: there is no such thing as a journalist. There is no accreditation process for journalizing. No degree you must earn, no program you must complete, no practice to be barred from should you break some professional, ethical code. All you need to be a journalist is the gall to call yourself one. And the thin, tenuous membrane between you as human person and you as journalist is comprised only of your audience and your audience’s trust in you.
Jon Stewart is a journalist the way Oprah is a journalist the way Anderson Cooper and Bill O’Reilly are journalists: these are human persons with platforms and audiences and images upon which their ability to do what they want to do and make the money they want to make turn. If a journalist reports on a tree falling in the woods, and no one’s around to hear him, then he’s just a narcissist with a microphone.
(Semi-related: this was what was so fascinating about watching Hank Green and Glozell Green and Bethany Mota interview President Obama. They’re modern embodiments of the above: their membrane is so nanometer-thin that they are beholden to nobody, really, but themselves. Their performance in their interviews in no way “threatened their brand.” They could be — in an important way, and in a way that the people who call themselves journalists cannot be — free to be real, living, breathing human persons, on air, asking real, lively, breathtakingly interesting questions.)
So you can criticize Jon Stewart as much as you want — and I’ll stand there beside you, criticizing a different lot of shit he deserves to be criticized for — but don’t do it because you think he falls short of some nonexistent standard.
Hypocrisy is sin enough itself, and if Stewart sins, it is not as journalist, but as human person.