For those of us who grew up with it, The Daily Show’s deterioration felt like a genuine cultural loss. The issue wasn’t that Stewart had become a prominent progressive voice. It was that he’d become a pundit, another voice screaming into the void. Punditry is my job and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But in today’s howling mob of a mediascape, there’s nothing daring or rebellious about it either. There aren’t even any barriers to entry: a 10-year-old latchkey kid can finish his snack, log on to Twitter and start calling the president a c**t. It’s the most saturated market on earth, even as we thirst for actual insights.
So no surprise, then, that Stewart gave way not just to a successor but to about four million of them. Today, his heirs, who mimic both his approach and his politics, are spread across practically every network on TV. The ‘funnyman as newsreader’ shtick traces back to long before Stewart — Mort Sahl, SNL’s Weekend Update — but today it’s become so pervasive as to feel like newsreel propaganda. Stephen Colbert puts his hands in his pockets and mugs at Donald Trump. John Oliver reads Vox articles off the teleprompter and intersperses them with f-bombs. Samantha Bee is so edgy as to sometimes even call Republicans racists. Jordan Klepper covers hot-button issues, and while he’s never done a segment on mercy killings, his show did recently undergo one.
None of these people are in any sense of the word interesting. What they are is partisan comfort food. Are you worried that the right-wing goons are on the march again?
The key phrase there is “partisan comfort food.” In the age of a massively splintered media, the palace guard approach is the safest method to holding onto an audience that’s a sliver of what Johnny Carson enjoyed:
This is also my theory about the big entertainment awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys. If the big, broad, general audience you used to have is gone, and deep down you think it’s never coming back, then why not make a harder bid for the loyalty of the smaller audience you’ve got left? In a time when the entertainment industry is (or thinks it is) a one-party state with no dissenters, you had better echo that politics back to your base.
What were once cultural institutions with a broad, bipartisan audience are becoming niche players with a narrow fan base. They no longer view partisan politics as a dangerous move that will shrink their audience. Instead, they’re using partisan politics as a lure to secure the loyalty of their audience, or what is left of it. Not that it’s going to work over the long term, because people who want to have their biases confirmed will just watch the five-minute YouTube clip Chris Cillizza links to the next day.
—Why Late Night Hosts Like Jimmy Kimmel Are Suddenly So Political, Robert Tracinski, the Federalist, October 5, 2017.