For many Americans — especially those between the ages 18 and 35, an age group I neatly bisect —Jon Stewart is more than a comedian, more than a satirist, and more than a newsman. He’s a hero, the standard bearer of progressive ideology who has fought the good fight, armed only with jokes and a goofy grin, against Fox News, the Bush Administration, and every Baby Boom right-winger young people love so heartily to mock.
But I come to bury Stewart, not to praise him. Because that narrative just isn’t borne out by the facts.
For the past decade, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Stewart just hasn’t been the progressive hero that so many wanted him to be, especially on matters of finance and business.
Sure, he covered the topic, and occasionally even produced something thought-provoking. By and large, though, Stewart—inarguably the most important American social satirist of the new millennium—didn’t hold accountable those who were truly responsible for the meltdown: the bankers, CEOs, and politicians, both Republican and Democrat, whose actions aided and abetted the mess we landed in.
Stewart’s biggest “takedown” during the financial crisis, and arguably of his whole career, was against Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC’s Mad Money. Yes, Cramer was once a hedge fund manager, but by the time Stewart lit into him, he hadn’t been in that position for almost a decade, and he was best known to America as the business news world’s version of your smart but drunk uncle, ranting and raving about god-knows-what on CNBC.
This isn’t to say that Cramer, CNBC, and the financial media at large don’t owe an apology to the American consumers who were hurt during the credit crisis. It’s just that, on the list of people to be held responsible, the television equivalent of the guy standing on the corner wearing a sandwich board and shouting at passersby ranks relatively low.
Then again, going after media personalities, especially ones like Cramer, was always easy for Stewart. There’s a reason his ultimate foil has been Bill O’Reilly, not George W. Bush, and why Stewart is most remembered for going on Crossfire and making fun of Tucker Carlson’s bow-tie.
Then there’s Stewart’s treatment of Occupy Wall Street. In their 2014 book #Newsfail—excerpted here on Salon—authors Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein examine the ways in which Stewart mocked, put down, and, ultimately, ignored the activists demanding that Wall Street pay for their role in the financial crisis:
In November, just a couple days after Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Zuccotti Park, “The Daily Show” aired another hit piece with correspondent Samantha Bee interviewing the most stereotypically spacey Occupiers she could find sleeping at the camp. That’s not to say there aren’t those elements within Occupy, but it was alarming to see “The Daily Show” fall into the same habits of hippie-punching seen in the establishment media.
“The Daily Show’s” message to its audience was clear: Occupy Wall Street is weird. Don’t join them.
Again, in Stewart’s defense, he is not the only writer on “The Daily Show,” and he clearly never wanted to be assigned this role of progressive leader.
He really couldn’t be more overt about it. So no one should have been surprised when Stewart, whose brother, Larry, worked as the chief operating officer of NYSE Euronext (2010–2013), the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, didn’t really seem to get what Occupy Wall Street was pissed off about.
So while he couldn’t find the time to take a serious look at the leaders of big banks, Stewart found plenty of comedy in relatively powerless protesters.
There are plenty of potential reasons why Stewart didn’t go after banks and other financial institutions the way he went after media personalities and politicians. For one, it’s easier to get funny, digestible material out of Republicans saying silly things than unethical practices by bankers. That’s understandable. There’s also the fact that Stewart works for Viacom, a giant corporate conglomerate, and his bosses probably wouldn’t have been too happy with him if he had targeted corporate power.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to this: despite his repeated assertions that he was just the kid sitting in the back of the room “shooting spitballs,” Stewart was never the outsider he claimed to be. He is, and always has been, part of the power structure, and that role has never included taking on the real most powerful guys in the room.