Jon Stewart signed off for the last time Aug. 6 as host of “The Daily Show,” leaving an enviable “news” legacy exceeded only by the late CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, a journalist so esteemed that his loyal viewers considered him the most trusted man in America.
When “Uncle Walter” spoke, millions of people listened, from the president of CBS to the president of the United States. Cronkite held the nation sway for 19 years, from 1962 to 1981. No other anchor since had come close to his sphere of influence. Until Stewart.
The comedian, writer, director and media critic turned a satirical news program on Comedy Central into a magnet for young viewers who preferred his sharp, honest spin on the news over mainstream network broadcasts. Over the years, Stewart morphed into the most trusted man in so-called fake news, the Walter Cronkite of his generation.
The parallel with Cronkite is revealing.
Cronkite was at the helm when television surpassed newspapers as the leading source of information for Americans. He soothed the nation through turbulent times that included war, culture clashes and a young president’s shocking assassination. He cheered with the rest of the country when American astronauts became the first people on Earth to step on the surface of the moon.
After a visit to South Vietnam in 1968, Cronkite sized up the situation and reported from the field. In a rare broadcast editorial after he returned, he said the United States could not win the war. The damning report went from Cronkite’s mouth to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s astonished ears.
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” Johnson reportedly said.
Recent reports that Stewart was a frequent guest of President Obama’s at the White House shouldn’t come as a big surprise, considering Stewart’s massive influence and ability to shape political discussion. The meetings were likely Obama’s astute way of not losing Stewart and consequently, millions of middle-class and young voters.
Stewart’s reign on the anchor desk began at a time when the 24-hour news cycle was at full steam, Yahoo and Google were new search engines, and Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were just around the corner. He understood the power of the new technologies and utilized them to connect with a young, tech-savvy audience. When Stewart spoke, cyberspace listened.
CNN got a taste of Stewart’s growing influence in 2004 when he made a guest appearance on “Crossfire” and called the political talk show’s format “partisan hackery.” In the subsequent fallout, the show was canceled a year later, and CNN president Jonathan Klein had to agree with Stewart’s criticism.
NBC got a taste of it early this year after Stewart announced his retirement from Comedy Central the same day the network placed star anchor Brian Williams on a six-month, unpaid hiatus for fudging facts. Front pages gave Stewart’s retirement and Williams’s suspension equal billing, with Stewart the one who was lauded for his political acumen and credibility. Now, as Stewart rides high into the sunset as a cultural icon, Williams is tentatively scheduled to return in September to an irregular time slot on MSNBC.
“And that’s the way it is,” Cronkite famously said each night when he ended his broadcast — a line half a century old that today could apply to the blurred lines between news and entertainment.
Stewart, who spent 16 years ferreting out hypocrisy in politics and the media, earned props with viewers because to them, he told it like it is.