Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have never claimed to be a “legitimate” new source. In fact, whenever Stewart is asked about the growing identity of The Daily Show as such a source, especially among the younger generation, he has always responded that the show is a comedy show, not a news source. However, that has not prevented Stewart or his writers from pointing out the inconsistencies and the flaws of actual news sources, like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. On Monday night, he hit the trifecta, as Jon Stewart took CNN and the other news outlets to task for their coverage of the Malaysian flight disappearance.
Stewart started the segment with a clip from Anderson Cooper, who reported simply the facts that were available at the time. Air traffic controllers lost contact with a jumbo jet carrying 239 people and CNN would be using all its numerous resources to bring as much information to the viewers as possible. Had CNN stopped there, it would have been a brief, but acceptable news story. Unfortunately, the flaw of 24-hour news channels is that stories like that cannot be brief. There are hours to fill and very little information to go on. Or, as Stewart eloquently put it, CNN realized “Oh s***, we have 23 hours and 59 minutes left to fill…F*** it, let’s go nuts.”
CNN’s coverage of the missing jet then became news in and of itself. Speculation and wild theories ran rampant on the network, ranging from the possibilities of a miniature black hole, the Bermuda Triangle, or even the plane disappeared “just like the movie Lost.” These theories seem to be read directly from Twitter feeds, allowing anyone with any possible idea to get airtime. CNN anchors acknowledge the ridiculousness of these theories, yet seemed to have no problem discussing the possibility of them being viable options. Both CNN’s Don Lemon and Richard Quest asked their panel of experts about the theories, forcing one of them to explain to the viewers that “Lost is a TV show.”
Jon Stewart and the Daily Show took CNN to task for their coverage, but they did not stop there. Shortly after, Stewart brought up clips from both Fox News and MSNBC lambasting CNN for their coverage of the disappearance. And in typical Daily Show fashion, he followed those clips with clips from both networks providing the same baseless speculation and theories. CNN then covered the coverage from the other networks about CNN’s coverage, creating what Stewart called “a news loop.”
This was not the first time that the Daily Show host has butted heads with the major news networks. His analysis of their coverage is almost a weekly event on Fox News, much to the joy of the host, as it provides even more clips to use on his comedy show. A decade ago, in the midst of the 2004 Presidential election, Stewart was invited to take part of CNN’s popular segment, Crossfire. The idea was to discuss Stewart’s then-recent comments about the segment, saying that it was “hurting America.” Instead, the segment became about CNN’s coverage of the election and how they never asked the hard-hitting questions to the presidential hopefuls, instead lobbing softball questions about how the candidates keep in shape. When confronted with the questions Stewart himself had asked John Kerry on his program, Stewart responded “You’re on CNN. The show leading into mine is puppets making crank phone calls!” He went on to say that if the news outlets are looking to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity, America is in deep trouble.
The Daily Show may be a comedy show and its host a comedian, but they have never claimed to be more than that. They cover the news stories that major news networks cover, but they are not a legitimate source of news. Yet they have quickly become the go-to source of news for many young Americans. A 2009 poll said that almost one-third of all Americans under 40 believe shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are replacing traditional news outlets. Shows like that report the news, but they do not take themselves seriously. The fact that Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have to take CNN and other news outlets to task and call them out for a lack of journalistic integrity leaves Stewart’s statements on Crossfire looking more and more prophetic.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner