In 2004, Jon Stewart — a news satirist from a comedy network — basically single-handedly derailed a CNN show by calling out its lack of journalistic integrity.
“Stop hurting America,” he begged the hosts of “Crossfire,” a current events debate program that had been airing nightly since 1982.
That’s right. A comedian took it upon himself to tell journalists — live, in front of their own television audience — that they were doing their jobs wrong. And it had an impact.
His appearance on the show touched a nerve among American viewers. Stewart was probably saying what many had been thinking — or, at least, what they had been feeling but were unable to articulate.
This is precisely the role that many comedians have: providing a different perspective on a commonly understood issue. In the same way, satire offers commentary on news and current events that are also being discussed by the mainstream media, but presents the information in a more entertaining and digestible way.
If you watch the episode of “Crossfire,” it’s admittedly quite awkward. You can tell that Stewart was trying to engage on honest, serious discourse, but the hosts weren’t having it. They had expected him to be a comedian, but he turned the tables and called them out on their hypocrisy.
“You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” Stewart told the hosts of the show, forthrightly criticizing their failure to fulfill their journalistic responsibilities.
It was this appearance on “Crossfire” that gained Stewart credibility with a large portion of the American public. And this perhaps, by extension, also elevated the integrity of other political satirists.
When held to a high standard, satirical news shows have the opportunity to provide their audiences with a well-thought-out and engaging perspective on the news. John Oliver is a good example of this. He takes it upon himself to find ways to simultaneously educate and entertain the public about issues — such as congressional fundraising or special districts — that we otherwise probably wouldn’t care about.
Comedians, or “fake news” anchors, are also in a position that allows them to question the media and point out its flaws. In this way, they serve as a check on those whose job it is to provide a check on power.
Current events and politics are often confusing and distressing, and satirists such as the hosts of many late-night talk shows take it upon themselves to find a way to restructure that information in a way that makes it more digestible, entertaining and even, perhaps, edifying.
Satirists use humor not just to lighten a subject, but also to enlighten their viewers.
And by confronting the media, those who follow in Stewart’s footsteps can play an important role in encouraging a more honest political and social discourse.