For someone who says he’s not a journalist, Jon Stewart has been practicing a hell of a lot of journalism for the past 16 years—assuming we accept that the mission of journalism is to inform on important issues, be critical of those in power, and challenge the status quo. As he leaves The Daily Show, Stewart also leaves a legacy of confronting the problems in the news business, from the damaging effects of a 24-hour news cycle to the centralization of media outlets. His cloak of humor allows him to practice journalism freed from the constraint of objectivity; the rest of the media shouldn’t try to be funny, but they do need to lose the constraints.
Objectivity, as it’s practiced today, means that any journalist who challenges a politician is accused of bias. By not questioning the veracity of their subjects’ claims, and by choosing to remain in the middle, objectivity turns from an attempt to protect against bias to a reckless disregard for fact-checking claims. Nowhere is this case more evident and of greater consequence than in the lead-up to the Iraq War, when Stewart seemed to be the only person refusing to spit back the lines the Bush administration fed the rest of the media. In comparing the media’s scrutiny on Brian Williams to the lack of scrutiny that same media had for the Iraq War, it’s clear there’s a big problem, a problem of a media that’s all mouth and no tooth.
Here’s what objectivity is: the idea that reporters can and should divorce their feelings and thoughts from their reporting. Philosophically, “outside the head.” Here’s what objectivity is not: facts, accuracy, and fairness. It’s not editorial standards and it’s not fact checking. Theoretically, its intention is to remove agenda from reporting, but in practice, it’s people who have put a great deal of time and resources into researching something that they are not allowed to share an opinion on. It doesn’t seem possible for any intelligent person to explore an issue and not, in that process, form opinions on it. It’s more harmful to pretend that reporters don’t have opinions, because we don’t know how those opinions might be affecting the story. But it doesn’t matter whether or not true objectivity is possible—even if it is, we shouldn’t reach for it.
That’s because objectivity—or the quest to be objective—renders journalists toothless. Boiled down, a journalist’s job is to call bullshit—on those in power, on institutions, on agendas. And it gets a whole lot harder to call bullshit when you can’t actually say it out loud. There are examples of journalists doing this, but they are the few outsiders in a sea of people who don’t ask hard questions or push politicians for fear of coming off as biased.
Jon Stewart on the 24-hour news cycle
When Bill Moyers asked Stewart if he was practicing an old form of parody or a new form of journalism, Stewart responding that he’s doing what a lot of journalists wish they could do:
I think, honestly, we’re practicing a new form of desperation. Where we just are so inundated with mixed messages from the media and from politicians that we’re just trying to sort it out for ourselves …
I can’t tell you how many times we’ll run into a journalist and go, “Boy, that’s … I wish we could be saying that. That’s exactly the way we see it and that’s exactly the way we’d like to be saying that.” And I always think, “Well, why don’t you?”
They don’t because they adhere to stifling constraints of objectivity—constraints that need to go. The need to be seen as objective cripples journalists’ ability to pursue the truth covered by politicians’ spin. Interrupting, asking for clarification, and challenging the veracity of a person’s statement are all good ways to be accused of political bias. “Politicians have figured out the media. They understand that 24-hour news networks? They don’t have time for journalism,” Stewart told Moyers. “They only have time to be handed things and go, this is what I’ve just been handed by the administration. And they read it.”
The same system that doesn’t give enough time for journalists to do journalism punishes journalists for coming to reasonable conclusions. It’s the opposite of informative to quash journalists’ informed thoughts on the subjects they report, to provide information without analyzing it. It’s not spin; it’s the contemplation of a person who’s absorbed a great deal of information and spat it back out in simple language so the rest of us can understand things. And it’s not unreasonable to think people who consume journalism sans objectivity will be more informed: A 2007 Pew Research study found that “regular viewers of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report were most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs.”
And while Jon Stewart’s opinionated journalism is better than anyone else’s today, he’s certainly not doing anything new. In the 1960s Tom Wolfe codified what he called the New Journalism, a type of reporting that included personal narrative and techniques used in fiction writing that was practiced by him and others like Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion. David Foster Wallace would practice his own version with non-fiction storytelling; Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks provides a recent example of medicine and science made fascinating by their fusion to fiction; Naomi Klein writes so passionately on the monstrosities committed by those in power that it’s hard to imagine what she would read like were she not allowed to express outrage. That outrage sometimes bursts from more mainstream journalists, as it did from Anderson Cooper when he reported on Hurricane Katrina. Instances like that are held up fondly as examples of journalists doing their jobs well—imagine if they were allowed to do that all the time.
There are other examples of journalists dropping objectivity, Serial being the most impressive and well known. Imagine what the podcast would have been without host Sarah Koenig sharing her feelings on the case as she reported its facts. Being upfront with her thoughts on the case allowed for greater scrutiny from the listeners and started important discussions about discrimination and white privilege in journalism. Such reactive critical thinking would have been a lot less likely to happen had Koenig pretended she didn’t have any of her own thoughts about the case—and worse, subsuming those thoughts would have been misleading. But that’s the case with too much journalism: Reporters must pretend to be robots. That’s bad for journalism, bad for engagement, and bad for the people who benefit from strong reporting.
Serial and its parent This American Life share another quality with The Daily Show: They are engaging. An effect of freedom from objectivity is the ability to make journalism so much more powerful than the lists of facts and quotes that make up so much of traditional reporting. Imagine how informed the public could be if Koenig and company turned its focus on other issues; likewise, think how easy it would be to consume important news if The Daily Show had more time to examine all the ways in which politicians are lacking. A journalist’s role is to keep us informed enough to make informed decisions in the voting booth, to keep those in power accountable, and to question the social institutions that produce social problems. If more journalists were allowed to do their jobs—to challenge and question and accuse—we wouldn’t need Jon Stewart call to bullshit.
The day after Stewart announced he’d be leaving The Daily Show, David Carr wrote his final column on Stewart and Williams’ common ground. That common ground is that they’re both in on the joke of the news: “It’s all knowing winks and fake attacks on confected news read by people who are somewhat bored by what they do.” Carr also described Stewart as an idealist, “his indictment of politicians and media figures was less about what they were and more about what they failed to be.” One way to start becoming what they need to be is for journalists to worry less about objectivity and more about filling the hole that will be left when Stewart leaves The Daily Show.