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Stewart, Colbert and a Diminished Liberal Voice?

02/13/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Jon Stewart collected his many media accolades this week following the announcement he's leaving as host of The Daily Show, which he's anchored for 16 years. The Comedy Central cornerstone, where comedy and politics intersect, has been rightfully toasted for its groundbreaking path and wide cultural influence. But I don't think there's a way to spin the departure as anything but discouraging news for progressives and their voice in the media.

As a viewer, I understand why Stewart is walking away. The show had started a feel a little creaky. And frankly, how can it not after 16 years and more than 2,000 episodes intensely focused on the quickening news cycle. But as someone who's concerned about the public dialogue, and especially concerned about conservative misinformation, the news of Stewart's pending exit is troubling. It's particularly dismaying coming on the heels of Stephen Colbert's recent departure from Comedy Central.

Over the last decade, Stewart and Colbert emerged as the Mantle and Maris of political satire, revolutionizing the way viewers, especially young ones, consume news. (For years, both Stewart and Colbert drew more 18- to 24-year-old viewers than late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC, an impressive feat for cable programs.)

The duo's departures are disheartening because their satirical and often fearless work proved instrumental in spearheading progressive arguments and critiques. The two anchors helped spotlight issues, call out epic Republican bouts of hypocrisy, and undress Fox News in a way previous left-leaning media voices hadn't been able to. (And yes, they also called out Democrats with regularity.)

That's why I would argue that Stewart and Colbert represented two of the most influential American liberal voices in the last half-century. Why? (Aren't they just comedians?!) Mostly because of their national television platform and because their shows attracted millions of viewers. But also because the hosts became cultural icons. And let's face it, liberalism hasn't always been synonymous with "funny" and "cool." But thanks to the Comedy Central dynamic duo, they provided the laugh track for national debates about the minimum wage, about health care, about preemptive wars, and about an endless array other hot topics.

Fact: Being funny and famous on TV in America allows you to open all kinds of doors for discussion.

They created and nearly trademarked a hugely important voice. It was a voice that Stewart coined at the outset of the George W. Bush administration. It was a voice that borrowed from the then-unfolding liberal blogosphere and from fledgling Air America's radio network. It was a voice that insisted on being smart, factual, relentless, and, whenever possible, wickedly funny. It was irreverent, in-your-face, and aggressive, and it created a stronger appetite for political satire.

It was a comedic voice as influential as The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live at their peak, but it was about politics -- liberal politics. It was about holding people accountable and shaming bullies who preyed on the weak.

It was not a voice that sprang from traditional bastions of "liberal opinion" (i.e., the left side of newspaper opinion pages). This was an outsider's view and voice that said, "We're not going to bore people to tears, and we're not going to play nice with the other side, because, frankly, they're sometimes ludicrous."

And of course this approach had nothing to do with the brand of traditional late-night political humor told during toothless monologues, those tributes to both-sides-are-to-blame humor presented by hosts who showed no interest in exposing how politics and the press really work in this country. Instead, "Mr. Stewart proved that nightly topical humor could be hilarious while also being as incisive and passionate as the best news organizations," noted New York Times comedy columnist Jason Zinoman this week.

Who would've thought 10 or 15 years ago that Comedy Central, home to Crank Yankers and Workaholics, would become a touchstone for progressive media in this country? But that's how innovation happens: having the right people at the right place at the right time and then being smart enough, and daring enough, to succeed.

And it worked wonders. You don't think so? Read this National Review Online screed this week about how awful and unfunny Stewart supposedly is (an "intellectual parasite") to get a sense of the level of untapped envy that conservatives have harbored for years as Stewart and Colbert swatted home runs while they watched from the stands, unable to field a competent satire team of their own.

In terms of politics, I'm not saying Stewart or Colbert were the point persons to lead a movement. They were not. I doubt they budged the Democratic Party one way or another. Their schtick had clear political limits. And I don't think it ever should have been seen as a stand-in for grassroots activism.

What I'm talking about the public square and having voices on the left that adroitly, and often hilariously, made crucial points about the state of U.S. politics, mocked conservative lunacy (see the latte salute freakout), and hosted necessary critiques of the often sad state of mainstream news media.

"Let's get a sense of where the media is trying to build the narrative and where the story lines are going to go," Stewart once instructed his writers at a staff meeting.

A little over a decade ago you could have filled a middle school gymnasium in this country with all the writers and thinkers from coast to coast who were intently focused on deconstructing news media narratives. But now that debate is absolutely (and thankfully) commonplace, thanks in part to people like Stewart and Colbert and their nationally televised megaphones.

Here's what Stewart and Colbert were not: They were not boring, they were not con men, and they absolutely refused to pit people against each other while appealing to base fear. In other words, they were the anti-Glenn Beck and the anti-Rush Limbaugh of partisan media.

And now those voices are gone. Or will soon be gone. The question is: Will the model and the voice they helped create carry on for years to come? (The Daily Show will continue without Stewart; Larry Wilmore is anchoring The Nightly Show in Colbert's old time slot.) Longevity is the goal. But there's also a chance that Stewart's and Colbert's rise to stardom signaled a cultural peak that liberals won't again be able to scale.

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