Jon Stewart Talks Media's Role in Election Outcome, How to Combat Spread of Fake News

Jon Stewart Times Talk- Steve Meyer for The New York Times - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Steve Meyer for The New York Times

The comedian criticized people's political-team mentality, continued to insist not all Donald Trump supporters are racists and rejected the idea that the president-elect could "ruin everything."

The publication of an oral history of Jon Stewart's time on The Daily Show has brought the former host back into the spotlight, and he continued to offer profound insights into the news media and politics during a New York Times talk earlier this week.

New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik interviewed Stewart and Chris Smith, author of The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests about Stewart's more than 16 years at the helm of the Comedy Central show. But the comedian also talked extensively about the recent election outcome and how 24-hour news networks covered the presidential campaign.

He also quickly shot down arguments that his version of The Daily Show was responsible for either Hillary Clinton's loss or Donald Trump's win, with dueling online articles just days after the election claiming that if Stewart was still hosting the Comedy Central series, Clinton would have won and that he and the show's legacy helped elect Trump. Stewart looked dumbfounded at both assertions before offering some sarcastic quips about the show's great political influence.

"We were the destroyers of men and creators of empires. I think that generally is satire’s role and has always been: the rise and fall of civilization at our whim," he said facetiously, jokingly adding, "I would have probably allowed Hillary to come a little closer in the Rust Belt, but I still think I would have given Michigan to Trump. I had a little something going on where I was going to give [Al] Gore Florida. There was a bit we had planned that was going to hand Florida to Gore."

But in all seriousness, Stewart says he doesn't think satire has that much influence, something he hopes the book illustrates.

"I think of one of the lessons of this book and what we’re talking about is to put satire and culture in its proper place — that controlling a culture is not the same as power. And that while we were all passing around really remarkably eviscerating videos of the Tea Party ? that we had all made great fun of ? [they were] sitting off a highway at a Friendly’s taking over a local school board," Stewart said. "And the lesson there is, as much as I love what we did and I liked it, there is a self-satisfaction there that is unwarranted, unearned and not useful."

Beyond that, he doesn't think U.S. media outlets, specifically 24-hour news networks like CNN and Fox News, are responsible for Trump's win, despite his issues with them.

"Trump didn’t happen because CNN sucks," Stewart said. "CNN just sucks. He happened because that's the push and pull of this nation at all times. It's a push and pull between nativism and a more inclusive multicultural approach. It's a country that writes in its founding document all men are created equal but only white men who own property can vote. That's the earliest contradiction, and we've been fighting that battle ever since."

He added that the Brexit vote proves his point that it's not as though if the news media "had done a better job, this country would've made a better choice," praising the BBC's approach to coverage.

Stewart tackled the phenomenon of fake news, saying he was "enjoying this idea," but he argued that false information isn't just invented by a Macedonian teenager, criticizing hyperbolic headlines. And he objected to the relentless focus on Trump's tweets instead of investigating his vague criticism of NAFTA, for instance.

"What's the biggest story today? Donald Trump tweeted that he won the popular vote and flag burners should lose their citizenship. [It's] just some f—ing thing he tweeted, and it's dominating the 24 hours," Stewart said. "But does anyone here understand what NAFTA is and what it did and what it meant to jobs because everyone seems to feel like that was the lever by which the election was won or lost. But if you watch the 24-hour news networks, you have no idea what that means. Or what is it? How many jobs were lost? Were jobs gained? Watch the post-election analysis. Everyone's talking about NAFTA and working-class whites. That seems to be the most important issue now in the entire election. If you were to look back on the election coverage, I would love to know how much of it was geared towards letting people understand, even, forget about NAFTA — what are trade agreements? What do they even mean? What does it mean when Donald Trump says, 'This is a disaster.' Is it a disaster? What is it? Or is automation really at issue with a lot of these job losses? What's the balance?"

Stewart also characterized the difference between CNN and Fox News as the distinction between "weathermen" (CNN, reporting on events as they happen, according to Stewart) and "climate scientists" (Fox News, Stewart argued).

"[Fox News understands] that they have an intention and their entire system is focused on creating a methodology to make that intention resonate and to be able to articulate it explicitly and to place that out there," he explained. "It's a brilliant plan. CNN is just like, 'He tweeted about the flag!' Zoom. 'We're losing our citizenship!' Zoom. And they're not paying attention. Fox, though, is standing behind them. They're an organization that understands how to control weather and climate. Whereas the other one just thinks, 'Who was that guy who was Trump's manager? The one that got fired? Hire him.' The only ones who don't know that are CNN. CNN are like, 'We don't know what happened here?' It's like, 'We threw a ball and you ran after it.' What do you mean you don't know what happened? … It's one of the reasons why Fox anchors are so good at what they do. They're empowered from the top to express editorial authority. If you watch those shows, you are watching people express to you what they feel is important, where they place emphasis. You are watching people conduct information percussively with amplification and different rhythms. … That's why [Chris] Wallace was such a great debate moderator, because he's been trained in the art of editorial authority. The greatest thing that [Roger] Ailes did was he devalued editorial authority from any organization but his own."

The Daily Show host also argued that news organizations can stop the spread of fake news by being more careful about what they report.

"Rumor becomes fact becomes canon really quickly in this system at a speed that you can't imagine," Stewart said. "What happens is someone creates a conspiracy theory on the web and then news organizations cite a website that is in no way credible for that piece of information and they put it on their news site and later on, five days later, when somebody is doing a story about that and they do a search, that comes up but what doesn't come up is the annotation of where that came from and where the source was so that piece of information has been laundered. It's free-floating. And that gets placed into a story about that subject without the qualifying radioactive isotope that tells you it's from a bullshit source and then it goes on. And from now on, whenever anyone does a story about that — credible places, not credible places — that piece of information is now accepted as fact and passed around and used as an example of something real that has happened. If the news organizations really want to tackle fake news, they need to look at where they are aggregating their information. Stories that were sent from a Macedonian teenager to grandmothers' email accounts didn't sway this election. News organizations that lost their credibility and authority because they were not careful enough about introducing toxic and poisoned information and laundering it into a system devalued the authority of real supposed news sources to the point where people are frustrated enough to elect a man who stands for what he stands for."

Stewart also criticized the media for focusing too much on political campaigns instead of "governance," forcing people to choose sides in an endless contest that leads to deep divisions.

"If a campaign is too long, the fault lines between different tribes in our societies solidify," he said. "And those lines harden to the point where you can’t get past that. This country needs time to decompress and have make-up sex. Because what you become is just teams. And the campaigns are just too long."

Stewart argued that people shouldn't demonize those who supported the person they oppose, insisting, "Not everybody that voted for Trump is a racist."

"I don’t give a f— what any of you say to me," he continued. "You can yell it at me, you can tweet it at me. They’re not all racists. Or they’re not giving tacit support to a racist system. We all give tacit support to exploitative systems as long as they don’t affect us that badly.”

Stewart pointed to the many people who own iPhones as an example of his point. "Guess how those are made, guess who makes them? … It’s not different, we all do that. All of our shit stinks and getting beyond that takes incredible work," he added. "This has to stop. This idea that we’re all ... that our team is perfect and the other team is demons. And this is not like a 'Kumbaya, let’s all get along.' Let’s f—ing fight, but let’s fight with precision and integrity, and not with just demonization. And I’ll say this, I know a lot of first responders. I spent a lot of time in that community. A shitload of them voted for Trump. The same people that voted for Trump ran into burning buildings and saved whoever the f— they could no matter what color they were, no matter what religion and they would do it again tomorrow. So, if you want to sit and tell me that those people are giving tacit approval to an exploitative system ? I say, 'OK, and would you put your life on the line for people who aren’t like you? Because they did.'"

As for advice for those worried about Trump's policies, Stewart urged people to rally around those who would be most affected.

"There will be real ramifications to this election," he said. "Who are the vulnerable people? Where are the vulnerable societies? And not in tweets, in practice, in reality. If he tries to deport DREAMers, then that’s where everyone has to go, to protect them. If he tries to make a Muslim registry, then everyone has to go there and help them. You have to find the people that are going to be most in jeopardy, I think, and put your attentions on them because now it’s about reality."

Stewart went on to argue that despite his jokes leading up to the election that this would be the last one, Trump "can't ruin everything."

"We’re still the same country," he said. "Obama didn’t change and fix everything, and Trump can’t ruin everything. If we’re that vulnerable to one guy … that guy? That’s how we’re going out? This incredible experiment in liberty and democracy that we fought and died for is going to go out with that guy? That can’t be how this story ends."