The Couch Surfer: ‘For a comedian, Jon Stewart places a high value on seriousness’

Tim Walker: Can a news programme be taken seriously if it’s sponsored by a coffee chain?

Back in August, as the US presidential election was revving up, The New York Times got a rare look behind the scenes of The Daily Show and asked whether its presenter, comedian Jon Stewart, might just be the most trusted newsman in America. Stewart’s “fake news” show has earned its reputation for telling the truth to power – or, at least, to Fox News.

Last week the Times returned the favour, gamely giving Daily Show reporter Jason Jones a tour of its newsroom, though perhaps unaware that the subject of his report would be print media’s decline. The segment was doomily entitled “End Times”, and required Jones to wander the Gray Lady’s corridors looking awestruck by the antediluvian operations of a daily newspaper. He chuckled at the use of landline phones and the outdated emphasis on “factual” information. “You know who would love this?” he said, clutching the latest edition. “My grandma.”

Jones conducted interviews with the Times’ assistant managing editor Richard L Berke, executive editor Bill Keller, and “communications coordinator” Kristin Mason. As a member of the elitist liberal media, I tend to assume that everyone else in the Western world is aware of The Daily Show, so it continues to amaze me when its interviewees are bemused by being asked silly questions.

The Times top dogs must have known what they were letting themselves in for, however, as they managed not to get too tetchy. Berke seemed to be stretching for a funny line to counter Jones’ pre-prepared jokes. Keller was able to shoehorn in a worthy point about the internet’s lack of first-person reportage: he’d never, for example, seen a Huffington Post bureau in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Jones told Mason he could imagine Woodward and Bernstein at the coffee station, “chewing the fat over a ‘bear claw’ [which, FYI, is a variety of pastry]”. “That was The Washington Post,” Mason replied stonily. (And it’s something of a sore point, since two Times reporters recently admitted that they’d dropped the ball on Watergate before their rivals broke the story.)

Gawker, the Manhattan media gossip site, quickly blogged that Jones’ report “might be the most painfully funny Daily Show skit ever produced” Well, it was painfully funny – with emphasis on the “painful” for anyone from what Jones called the “aged news” world. But then it’s in Gawker’s interest to knock old media, and the site expends much of its editorial energy revelling in print’s decline.

In a later post, a Gawker blogger suggested it had been a “hot-knife-in-the-buttocks takedown … [and] would crush the paper.” To me, however, Jones’ report looked a lot like flattery wrapped in ridicule. He didn’t mock anything the Times had actually printed recently; in fact, his only criticism was that it contained “yesterday’s news.”

In an online interview he obligingly gave to the paper afterwards, Jones said, “You guys aren’t doing a bad enough job for us to make fun of on a constant basis.” And I doubt Jon Stewart would deliberately contribute to the paper’s demise. For a comedian, he places a high value on Times-like seriousness, which is why it’s the silliness of television news that generally fuels his wrath.

In a recent segment (which also teased The New York Post for hawking free diamonds to potential readers), he generated a feud with Joe Scarborough, presenter of MSNBC's Morning Joe and a former Republican congressman.

Stewart poked fun at Scarborough’s show, which is now sponsored by Starbucks. In an interview with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Scarborough had discussed their product placement arrangement, but ignored the company’s conflicts with unions and its ongoing redundancies.

Scarborough took it badly and accused Stewart of having anger issues; Stewart ended up on a pony, dressed as Napoleon. It all got a bit complicated. But I see Stewart’s point: can a news programme be taken seriously if it’s sponsored by a coffee chain – especially when the anchors sit around discussing the tastiness of their muffins?

Perhaps I shouldn’t speak too soon; there’s a good chance we print journalists will end up working for Starbucks, too. And Jason Jones, for one, would be happy with the arrangement: “I would gladly enjoy being served by a journalist who has now become a barista as opposed to some high school dropout who’s a barista,” he commented to the Wall Street Journal, “because that’s an informed coffee pour.”

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