Millennials love Jon Stewart, and sometimes it’s hard for the Fox-News-loyal parents and grandparents of Millennials to understand the appeal.
First, Jon Stewart would not exist if CNN and Fox News didn’t exist. It is only because of their particularly hard-lined, agenda-framed, news-menu approach that Jon Stewart has any material—and any audience.
The thing is, Fox News and CNN are both jokes. The problem is they don’t realize it. And neither does their audience. But aside from this social contract (much like the Emperor’s social contract concerning his new wardrobe) that allows everyone to pretend, there is no reason why the audience shouldn’t be laughing at the false sternness, the fabricated outrage, and the simulated enthusiasm of uninspiring actors with performances that make Ron Burgundy seem like Edward R. Murrow.
Millennials grew up hearing certain truths from their parents and grandparents about what it meant to be American. But all of those truths turned up false. The American Dream may have been a reality for the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. Not for Millennials.
But the system—with its political, social, dialogic components—continues on as if nothing has changed. As if the reason Millennials are living at home is because they’re lazy, and not because our fathers and grandfathers stole the promise of our labors for easy credit and no-fault divorce. As if the economy is stronger than ever, even though none of us can find jobs. As if the race riots and the police brutality are not worse now than they’ve ever been. As if the civil government has always been poised to establish complete socialistic control over all aspects of life. As if.
That’s what Jon Stewart brings to the table. He calls out a big “As if” to the Emperor’s New News. In a world where the news is just one peasant’s cry away from a hilarious public display of shame, Jon Stewart is the young boy who isn’t as willing to let social propriety get in the way of the simple truth. So much of his humor comes from playing unedited news and political clips. All that it takes to realize how ridiculous our world has become is the right frame. That’s refreshing to Millennials, because we’re so tired of being lied to by people who wouldn’t follow the ideals they tried to inculcate into us.
But even Jon Stewart gets had. He believed in Obama for a time. He’s believed in all sorts of things that have proven false. He’s one of the few political commentators that has ever recognized these kind of errors on air. He’s one of the few news celebrities that doesn’t seem to be fitting the news into a pre-edited narrative of American exceptionalism, view-baiting, party-lobbying, and self-glorification.
I’ll be sad to see Jon Stewart go. Not because I always agreed with him, but because his candor and satire have been a refreshing alternative to the bad actors on the right and left of the dial. But I hope his departure will leave behind more than mere cynicism. He’s leaving because it’s been old for a while for him. Millennials love him because he mocks lies. But it’s not enough to uncover a lie. You have to discover the truth.