Stewart leaves politics better than he found it

100106-N-0696M-127 NEW YORK (Jan. 6, 2009) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen is interviewed by John Stewart during a taping of the Daily Show. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

After 16 years, Jon Stewart is departing from “The Daily Show.” Since taking over as host in 1999 from Craig Kilborn, Stewart turned the late-night satire show into a source of scathing wit, a place of social and political commentary and a cultural phenomenon. Stewart announced his plans to depart “The Daily Show” during a taping on Tuesday, noting that he would “remain at the helm of ‘The Daily Show’ until later this year.”

Comedy Central, the network that airs “The Daily Show,” followed up Stewart’s announcement with a public letter thanking Stewart for his work and achievements with the network. Jon Stewart’s “brilliance is second to none,” said the network, adding that, “Through his unique voice and vision, ‘The Daily Show’ has become a cultural touchstone for millions of fans.” While the future of the program is unclear and a new host has yet to be named, Comedy Central is certain that, thanks to the environment and ethic that Stewart created, the show will continue to be “an unparalleled platform for political comedy that will endure for years to come.”

The writing was on the wall for Stewart’s departure when, in June 2013, the host took a 12-week break to direct his first movie, “Rosewater,” a drama about a journalist jailed by Iran for four months. John Oliver replaced Stewart at the anchor desk for two months, followed by one month of re-runs. Oliver received positive reviews for his hosting, leading to his departure from the show for his own show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Besides Oliver, the show has long served as a spotlight and launching platform for a number of young, talented comedians such as Steve Carrell, Ed Helms, Demetri Martin and Rob Riggle. Stephen Colbert rose to fame first as a correspondent for “The Daily Show” and later as a host of “The Colbert Report,” a Fox News-like news program that satirically contradicts the message of its predecessor.

Stewart’s announcement comes as a harsh blow in tandem with the departure of Stephen Colbert from “The Colbert Report.” It was announced on April 10, 2014 that Colbert had been chosen to succeed David Letterman as the host of the “Late Show” after Letterman retires in May of this year. While “The Colbert Report” has since been replaced by “The Nightly Show,” hosted by former “Daily Show” correspondent Larry Wilmore, the new program has yet to garner the critical acclaim or public presence of either Colbert or Stewart’s programs.

During Stewart’s reign, “The Daily Show” went from a novelty news program on a little-watched comedy network to a legitimate political and cultural force. A poll released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited “The Daily Show” as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news.

By contrast, 23 percent of the young people mentioned ABC, CBS or NBC’s nightly news broadcasts as a source.

Even more startling is the change from just four years ago. When the same question was asked in 2000, Pew found only 9 percent of young people pointed to the comedy shows and 39 percent to the network news shows. In terms of age, the “Colbert Report” (80 percent), “Daily Show” (74 percent) and the New York Times (67 percent) have the biggest percentage of viewers and readers in the coveted 18-49-year-old demographic.

Stewart and “The Daily Show” often drew ire from conservatives for toeing the line between news and comedy, but the show always managed to maintain a brilliant balance. Ben Karlin, the show’s executive producer, acknowledged that “a ‘Daily Show’ viewer who doesn’t supplement it with real news isn’t very well-informed.” However, perhaps without knowing it, Stewart helped create a program that attracted a younger generation in a way that traditional news sources never could. In “The Daily Show,” our generation, so famous for its political apathy, found a source that could condense, distill and disseminate information in an entertaining way.

Jon Stewart’s departure leaves a hole in the political culture of our nation. But over his 16 years, was the “Daily Show” host able to change anything, to leave a lasting effect on politics in this country? In October 2010, Stewart and Colbert led The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, a gathering Stewart described as an opportunity for reasoned and balanced voices to be heard among the more vocal and extreme 15 to 20 percent of Americans who “control the conversation” of American politics. About 215,000 people attended the rally, which took place at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Besides creating publicity, segments on “The Daily Show” could be directly pointed to as the source of political action. Over the last two years, Stewart has repeatedly highlighted issues of dysfunction and corruption such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, leading President Obama to pledge during his 2014 State of the Union address to reduce the backlog of pending disability benefit claims by veterans. According to a year-end report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the backlog dropped by 60 percent from the high of March 2013 (611,073 cases) to September 2014 (241,991), and as Obama proudly announced during this year’s address, “We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need.”

After the United States Senate failed to pass and the media failed to cover the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would have provided health monitoring and financial aid to sick first-responders of the Sep. 11 attacks, Stewart dedicated the entire Dec. 16, 2010 broadcast to the issue. During the next week, a revived version of the bill gained new life, with the potential of being passed before the winter recess. Stewart was praised by both politicians and affected first-responders for the bill’s passage. According to Syracuse University professor of television, radio and film Robert J. Thompson, “Without him, it’s unlikely it would’ve passed. I don’t think Brian Williams, Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer would’ve been allowed to do this.”

But the influence and importance of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” extends beyond bills and laws. Over the course of my life, Stewart’s political message has constantly served as the antithesis of the divisive and ideologically driven work put forth by other news organizations. CNN’s “Crossfire” helped create the model for the modern debate-drive news program. But after Jon Stewart’s appearance on the show in 2005, the show went off the air for eight years. Stewart accurately criticized “Crossfire” for creating a public discourse that reduced news coverage to a series of talking points from both extremes of the political spectrum. “It’s hurting America,” Stewart said. “Here is what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop … You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”

For 16 years, Stewart actively combatted this vision of politics. During high school, when sleep was a coveted currency, I woke up early every morning so that I could watch “The Daily Show” over breakfast. I woke up early because I knew that I walk away from the table not only informed and interested, but happy. Jon Stewart helped instill in me a vision of American politics that could be productive rather than obstructionist, beneficial rather than destructive. For this, and for all the laughs, he will be sorely missed.