The failure of U.S. television news–the notion of delivering, in the most sober, objective way possible, that day's major events to a mass audience–was bizarrely visible in the reporting of the simultaneous announcements of the screen departures of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart on Tuesday night.
Both stories broke in the early evening. The media establishment, which has spent the last few days rushing fulsomely to Williams' defense (including Stewart himself), must have been celebrating one minute that their much-maligned hero had escaped being fired, then mourning the next the more decorous abdication of their liberal, late-night king.
At Fox News, heads must have been spinning out of their sockets with joy.
MSNBC's headline, linking both stories, was "US Television News Suffers Seismic Shock."
Possibly this could be applied to Williams' six-month suspension from NBC News, if you believe his punishment amounted to anything more than a cannily judged slap on the wrist, which nevertheless leaves NBC's golden anchor egg unbroken.
But it should not have been used to apply to the 52-year-old Stewart who is not a journalist and presides over an ostensibly comic show on Comedy Central.
Over the years his show has transformed into a sadly necessary crucible of questioning and interrogation, its satire a hilarious, occasionally dark scream against political, media, and cultural hypocrisy. Stewart's show has become a necessary critique, but it is not news.
Stewart began Tuesday night's show, which is taped in the early evening, correctly guessing that when the show was seen by us, what he was about to say to the studio audience would have already been disseminated.
He said that Michele Ganeless, president of Comedy Central, had given him the "incredible opportunity" seventeen years ago of presenting The Daily Show, and "seventeen years is the longest I have ever in my life held a job, by sixteen years and five months–the upshot there-being, I am a terrible employee, but in my heart I know it is time for someone else to have that opportunity."
At this there were gasps of shock from the audience, realizing what Stewart was saying.
Stewart said: "It's not right away. We're still working out details. It might be July, September, December."
Within a tribute statement to Stewart, Ganeless said The Daily Show, which last year averaged 2.2 million viewers a night, "will endure for years to come."
Whoever follows Stewart will likely sensibly not try to fill such unique shoes. Stewart's influence has uniquely spanned comedy, news, and political arenas--and, as the voice of The Daily Show's sense of outrage over the absurdities and shortcomings of the political and media worlds, Stewart–who also executive-produces the show–himself became a cultural hero to many.
In 2010, Stewart and his fellow Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's "Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear" attracted 250,000 to Washington: it was a gathering against extremisms of all kinds, with Stewart playing the rabble-rousing demagogue to great effect, both comic and deadly serious. He's no journalist, although he is acutely brilliant at covering journalists' failings.
That is, as long as they are not his friend Brian Williams. On Monday, Stewart opined that the media erred more grievously for being led so willingly into backing war in Iraq than Williams had erred in not recounting his helicopter story correctly. His criticism of the supine media may be true, but it was not an effective rejoinder to Williams' critics, and was a rare Stewart misfire.
As for his own future–which looks immediately brighter than Williams' in his suspended purdah–Stewart said on Tuesday night, "I don't have any specific plans. Got a lot of ideas in my head. I want to have dinner on a school night with my family who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people."
The Daily Show, he added, "didn't deserve an even slightly restless host," implying that was how he felt.
At the time of the November release of Rosewater, his directorial debut, Stewart told The Daily Beast that he needed to "gain some distance and perspective" from the film before considering his future with The Daily Show.
That thinking time was now clearly complete. Stewart's Tuesday night speech was as graceful and eloquent as his fans would expect, Stewart speaking clearly from the heart, his body twisting this way and that.
He was emotional as he said he wouldn't try to sum up what "this place has meant to me over the years." There were "myriad people to thank," and plenty of time to do that as "we're not going anywhere tomorrow."
In his statement, Ganeless said, “For the better part of the last two decades, I have had the incredible honor and privilege of working with Jon Stewart. His comedic brilliance is second to none. Jon has been at the heart of Comedy Central, championing and nurturing the best talent in the industry, in front of and behind the camera. Through his unique voice and vision, The Daily Show has become a cultural touchstone for millions of fans and an unparalleled platform for political comedy that will endure for years to come.
"Jon will remain at the helm of The Daily Show until later this year. He is a comic genius, generous with his time and talent, and will always be a part of the Comedy Central family.”
The unanswered questions are what prompted Stewart to leave now–the taste of film directing, the simple amount of time he has been doing the gig for, a case itchy feet–or all of the above? And how will he and Comedy Central recast and remake this influential and much-cherished show anew?
Will viewers stick around without Stewart? Will it be built around one personality or several? Already one name being vaunted is Stewart's guest on Monday night's show, Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian satirist who was inspired by Stewart.
Nearing the end of his speech Tuesday night, Stewart said he was going to miss "coming here," especially the "creative and kind" people he works with. "I love them and respect them so much."
Someone shouted, "Love you, Jon."
Then Stewart almost unspooled. "Burrrrr. Eugggh," he roared Frankenstein-like, waving his arms to ward off tears. "What is this fluid? What are these feelings?"
Doing the show had been a privilege and honor, Stewart added. "I thank you for watching it, hate-watching it, whatever reason you are tuning in for. You get into this business to have a point of view and something to express. To receive feedback from that is the greatest feeling. I thank you."
The segment then cut to some familiar footage to Daily Show fans–that of a monkey washing a cat in a sink. The message to the audience: keep on laughing, for now at least.