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Trevor Noah’s announcement that he will be stepping down from hosting The Daily Show has reignited questions about the future of late night television. The main question seems to be whether late night has a future at all. Many blame streaming for the declining cultural reign of the late night talk show. Here’s another culprit: Sarah Palin.
Despite losing her recent congressional race, Palin’s impact on politics and media looms large. As John McCain’s running mate in 2008, she tapped into Americans who will never identify with Ivy Leaguers like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The intelligentsia dismissed Palin as an intellectual lightweight who couldn’t even name a single newspaper she read when asked by Katie Couric. Other Americans, however, saw themselves in her. My fellow writers won’t like hearing this, but plenty of people don’t like to read.
They also really don’t like it when those who think they’re smarter make others look dumb, even if they are. Palin’s Couric interview became fodder for memorable sketches on Saturday Night Live but the fallout also led to the political divide that defines media consumption today. Palin wrote off the press as condescending, mean-spirited, untrustworthy and out to get people like her (non-elites who would rather hunt than read.) People who saw themselves in her began to write the press off and the rise of social media finally made it easier for them to do so. (2008 was the first presidential campaign in which Twitter existed.)
When Palin first started avoiding traditional media, the thinking was that no high-profile politician could flourish without media gatekeepers. There was precedent. While George W. Bush was famously wounded by an embarrassing sit-down interview illuminating his lack of foreign policy chops during the 2000 campaign, he couldn’t simply steer clear of media he didn’t like, or trust, afterward. That simply wasn’t an option in the pre-social media days. But while she did sign a contract with Fox News, Palin became the first prominent political personality to use social media to strategically avoid media she didn’t want to engage with while still maintaining a significant public profile (and without the perch of the presidency that guaranteed visibility for Bush). A 2009 Politico article highlighted Palin’s outsized influence on the United States’ health care debate using social media (she popularized the term “death panels” in a Facebook post) despite “making almost no public appearances and successfully avoiding the media outlets that are clamoring to talk to her.” So while the Obama campaign’s win proved that social media can help mobilize voters, Palin’s loss and subsequent legacy proved something equally significant: that those who didn’t trust media gatekeepers no longer had to rely on them to reach fans or respond to enemies.
As the saying goes, Sarah Palin walked so Donald Trump could run. In the current cycle, Pennsylvania Democratic senate candidate John Fetterman has befuddled traditionalists with a campaign largely driven by social media. This transition from defined media gatekeepers to a media free-for-all has been hard on all legacy media institutions but perhaps hardest on late night television. After all, a paper can report on the Trump White House without Trump’s participation. Cable news can broadcast a lively debate regarding Biden’s policies with a panel of pundits. But you can’t really have a successful late night celebrity interview show without celebrities.
Late night hosts have thus become one of the casualties of America’s current culture wars. Before social media, it wasn’t necessary for a host to take a stand on the political issues of the day. Now, if hosts remains silent, they are derided as cowards and certain celebrities and viewers steer clear. If hosts are too vocal, however, they are denounced as biased just as loudly, and the costs may be just as high. Walking the talk show tightrope has become harder than ever, as Jimmy Fallon learned the hard way following his controversial softball interview with Trump.
Noah, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert are among those who decided to lean into their more progressive political views. Their shows became required stops for liberals promoting books, conservatives who didn’t mind verbal combat and activist actors. Their ratings, however, seemed to indicate that they were also alienating a large swath of America. Perhaps that’s why Greg Gutfeld’s late night talk show on Fox News, which leans to the right, has been a surprise hit, recently dethroning Colbert as the late night king. Still, Gutfeld’s viewership is just above 2 million. Johnny Carson’s final episode was watched by 55 million Americans.
That was clearly a different era. Today I couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of cable channels I currently have while others have cut the cord altogether. But upon Noah’s recent announcement, a friend ruefully observed, that there are teenagers offering makeup tutorials on YouTube with far more viewers than The Daily Show. Noah’s viewership hovered around 400,000.
This is ultimately Palin’s real legacy. Traditional media hosts no longer hold sway over the masses the way they once did.
One of The Tonight Show’s most memorable interviews was when Hugh Grant did his first sit-down after he was arrested with a prostitute. It’s hard to imagine a major male celebrity doing that today. Instead, Grant’s PR team would probably avoid press altogether and release a carefully worded statement via social media directly to his fans. Today, Grant has a very active presence on Twitter, which he has used to call out politicians like former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
If the Hugh Grants of the world no longer need The Tonight Show, who does?
Keli Goff was nominated for two Emmy Awards for the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe. She is a Contributor to KCRW’s Left, Right & Center and was a writer on And Just Like That and Mayor of Kingstown.
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