Jon Stewart critiques media coverage of Trump: But narcissism in pursuit of truth isn't a vice

In the din of dissonance that has been the soundtrack of the Trump presidency, one valued voice has been not...

Posted: Nov 3, 2018 1:26 PM
Updated: Nov 3, 2018 1:26 PM

In the din of dissonance that has been the soundtrack of the Trump presidency, one valued voice has been notably missing — and missed, by a generation of television viewers who grew up expecting Jon Stewart — more than Clarissa — to explain it all to them.

But at last he's been heard from. In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Stewart, three years after he pulled off his mic and walked away from "The Daily Show," finally lifted his hugely respected voice and commented at some length on Trump, the mood of the country and the ongoing battle over little things like truth, justice and the American way.

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As it happens, however, the dominant headline from the interview (which also included Stewart's fellow comic, Dave Chappelle), was Stewart's pointed filleting of the media for its participation in the ongoing verbal brawl with the president.

Mainly, Stewart accused the media of responding to the overbearing narcissism of the 45th president with narcissistic fervor of their own.

"I think the journalists have taken it personally," Stewart said. "They're personally wounded and offended by this man. He baits them and they dive in, and what he's done well, I thought, is appeal to their own narcissism, to their own ego."

Even if that assessment is not precisely accurate as to their disposition regarding the president, the comment itself, coming from Jon Stewart of all people, undoubtedly left many journalists, indeed, offended and wounded. Not to mention a bit ticked off.

How could Jon Stewart — who famously branded Donald Trump with a spectacularly vulgar nickname that ended with "Von Clownstick," and who was himself disparaged by the same man with dog-whistle references to his Jewish heritage (Trump insisted on calling him by his real name, Jon Leibowitz) — not defend the journalists who have confronted this president over his excesses in ugly rhetoric, racial division and thoroughgoing mendacity?

The answer is uncomplicated: This is Jon Stewart being Jon Stewart. As much comic energy as Stewart ever expended in eviscerating politicians of the right, which was mother's milk to his audience he had more than enough left over to rain satirical fire down on what he perceived as the indiscretions and pretensions of the media, mostly of the TV variety.

Maybe Fox News took in the heaviest barrage of Stewart's often righteous comic anger in his "Daily Show" days. But journalists from CNN and MSNBC had their time in the barrel, as can be attested to by people like Rick Sanchez, whom Stewart chewed up repeatedly, especially for getting himself tasered (and later getting himself fired from CNN for suggesting, among other things, that Jewish people were not an oppressed minority), and Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who said it was the worst interview of his life when Stewart trashed his book "Life's a Campaign." (Stewart: "At the end of your life do you give a concession speech?")

The basic premise of "The Daily Show," from its inception, was a mock newscast. Stewart used it to mock other newscasts.

His intent was always to hold journalists to higher standards, which his show often did by digging up embarrassing, self-indicting clips of figures in the news that real journalists could have and should have been able to do themselves. That led many people to suggest that Stewart was truly a journalist himself.

He hated that presumption. He once told me that he rejected categorically the notion that he was in any way a journalist, arguing that he was a comic, first, last and always. He would not even agree that he served the same function as an editorial cartoonist.

So is he right about the media and Trump? He certainly has a point when he noted that Trump is providing piles of cash to media outlets, whose audiences have grown as the hunger to keep up with Trump activities and utterances continues unsated.

And he is entirely justified in noting that communities of color have experienced hostility from people in power at a level that dwarfs any perceived threats journalists are experiencing now.

But Jon has been off the media critic beat for awhile, and some things are substantially different these days. The media is now dealing with a government that does not seem to respect antiquated notions like the First Amendment, and worse, openly encourages hostility and even physical violence toward reporters who are simply doing their jobs, declaring them an "enemy," even after bombs are addressed and mailed out to newsrooms.

More significantly, at a time when no institution, or even outpost, of government has been willing to hold a president accountable in any way, the media has been the lone challenge to words and actions that, by any assessment, have blown up established norms of political and personal behavior.

It may appear narcissistic to react with umbrage as Trump mocks the media for "fake news" and demeans them with nicknames. But insisting on the truth isn't narcissism; it is what professional journalists do — or strive to do. This president seems to want his own truth, and yes, that offends people in the truth-seeking business.

One other thing Stewart said seems to underscore that point. When Amanpour asked him about comedy crossing the line, he said, "I'm always fascinated when they say...'Where do comedians draw the line?' But nobody ever goes and says to Donald Trump: 'Where do Presidents draw the line?"

Oh yes they do.

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