Comedian Jon Stewart signed off last night after 16 years as host of "The Daily Show." Stewart, who is known for his liberal politics and his raw gift of humor, will be missed by many. Yet he will almost certainly not be missed by those to whom he became a thorn in the flesh.
Stewart's impact on America's political discourse is hard to overstate. When he came on the scene in 1999, there was not much mixing of comedy and politics. A clear line separated hard news from entertainment. Sure, late night hosts would draw material from the news and poke fun at politicians -- Saturday Night Live was perhaps the most notorious for this -- but nothing existed that could be loosely categorized as news and comedy. Things are quite different today, and Stewart had a huge hand in that change. His mock news show copied the format of a network news desk, but imported comedic content that at every turn dispelled the notion that this was a hard news show.
Yet even while Stewart denied that The Daily Show was an actual "news" show, his audience evidently thought differently. In a survey conducted last year, over one in 10 adults said that they turn to The Daily Show as a regular source of news. In a 2012 poll, 17 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they trust The Daily Show to provide them the most accurate news -- more accurate even then CNN. Unsurprisingly, 43 percent of The Daily Show's viewers described themselves as liberals. Forty-two percent described themselves as moderates, and only 14 percent said they were conservatives.
Stewart's unique form of comedy burgeoned during the 2000s. He became known for his regular attacks on the Bush administration during the Iraq War and was one of Barack Obama's most avid apologists during the 2008 election. Stewart has defended the president time and again throughout his years in office, and -- along with much of the left-leaning media -- has repeatedly given the president a pass on his most notable scandals and policy blunders. To his credit, Stewart also criticized Democrats from time to time, though one could easily argue that he did so largely to protect his public credibility. All in all, conservatives took the brunt of his criticisms, and he proved more than happy to play the president's cheerleader throughout President Obama's tenure. Obama has even appeared personally on Stewart's show seven times, three of which were during his presidency.
Conservatives often criticized Stewart for giving a decidedly liberal slant to the news -- even pushing liberal propaganda -- but Stewart always had an excuse: this isn't real news, it's comedy. You can't critique fake news. That was the clever genius of Stewart: reporting "news," advocating undeniably political views, but retaining the label of "comedy" so as to avoid serious criticism.
Stewart did his work splendidly and effectively, much to the chagrin of the conservatives he smeared. If conservatives take any lesson from the Stewart era -- and they should, for the sake of their movement -- it should be this: never underestimate the value of a media cheerleader who commands the attention of young voters. Court the young, and you will win tomorrow's elections.