Jon Stewart to leave 'The Daily Show': Bigger deal than Brian Williams?

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart is quitting and NBC News's Brian Williams is facing a six-month suspension. Ironically, Mr. Stewart's absence might matter more.

Brad Barket/AP/File
Jon Stewart records an episode of 'The Daily Show' in New York in this 2011 photo. Comedy Central announced Tuesday that Mr. Stewart will leave the show later this year.

It’s true – Jon Stewart is quitting “The Daily Show.” He announced his departure in a (slightly) teary segment at the end of Tuesday’s edition of the long-running comedy news program.

It was a touching moment, really. The studio audience got emotional. “I love you Jon!” shouted one man over the applause.

“AAARRR! What is this fluid?” replied Mr. Stewart as his eyes moistened up.

Coincidentally, news of this seismic shift in the late-night landscape came shortly after NBC News announced that anchor Brian Williams is being suspended for six months without pay due to his misstatements about coming under fire in Iraq. Metaphorically speaking, no audience cried out to Mr. Williams. Instead, his punishment was “greeted with equal measures shock and sadness” both inside and outside NBC, according to Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast.

Two white, male television personalities. One is a beloved, respected voice. The other is known for a fake report. Stewart is arguably the former, and Williams the latter. That’s how much the nexus between American society and its news consumption has changed since Walter Cronkite signed off of CBS News in 1981.

The half-hour evening news is a declining force. Families don’t gather to watch it, as fewer gather together for an organized evening meal due to the increase of work and school schedules. Stewart himself inadvertently made this point when he noted that one thing he was looking forward to in the post-“Daily Show” world was having dinner with his family, who “multiple sources tell me are lovely people.”

The “Daily Show” is later. It’s breezy. It’s organized in segments that are easy to break out as videos and pass around on social media. It doesn’t purport to be comprehensive, so it can focus on things its staff finds most interesting.

And it’s funny. The line between comedy and news is finer than serious journalists like to admit – but remember, Stewart was recently courted to head up the serious Sunday show “Meet the Press.” Young viewers like their news with a dose of laughs. They’ve grown up that way and don’t see it as interfering with their understanding of what’s going on in the world.

“It’s been repeated so often that it’s now a cliché. But plenty of studies show that many young Americans get their political news not from TV networks or newspapers but from Stewart’s biting satire,” writes CNN’s Stephen Collinson.

It’s also partisan. Williams and other news anchors strive to present balanced news. Stewart doesn’t.

“You get into this business thinking you have a point of view and something to express,” he said on Tuesday.

Mr. Cronkite and the other giants of network news would never have said that. They’d have said they got into the business looking for the truth, as best they could determine it.

But news consumption today skews into partisan teams. Fox News is the dominant cable news outlet due to its conservative emphasis. Stewart leans liberal, and so does his audience. According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 43 percent of The Daily Show audience is liberal and only 14 percent is conservative. Forty-two percent is moderate.

The numbers for “The Colbert Report,” the “Daily Show” spinoff helmed by Stephen Colbert, are pretty similar. Colbert has also quit his show, of course, to take over the chair of retiring late night talk host David Letterman. This has caused some angst on the left.

Eric Boehlert of the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters tweeted on Wednesday:

Meanwhile, the traditional media continue to restructure. With Williams off for six months, NBC will almost certainly experiment with new anchors and formats to see if something clicks. And newspapers? The Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday started the process of cutting its editorial staff by as much as 22 percent.

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