Jon Stewart No Jokes After Charleston Church Shooting

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Jon Stewart has been many things in his 16 years of talk show tenure, but “unprepared” has rarely been one of them. The Daily Show is defined by — and regularly wins awards for — its timely, tightly edited takedowns of the politicians and broadcast journalists who ignore facts in favor of fear-mongering and prefer votes and ratings to social change. So when Stewart started his June 18 episode by admitting that he had “nothing for you” — no jokes, no breaking news, no clips, no green screen gags, no correspondents with fake titles — it was exactly as jarring as it should be.

Because earlier that day, a racist with a gun stole nine lives at a Charleston Church. The story swirled with elements of all the preventable recent tragedies that came before it, namely gun control, white male privilege, racial inequality and mental illness. Though we all know it’s impossible to put human loss into neat boxes, we tuned in to that night’s episode expecting the usual cathartic format: clips of people spreading exaggerations and misinformation, more clips that provide satisfying documentation of their hypocrisy and dishonesty, and throughout it all, plenty of Stewart’s signature laugh-to-keep-from-crying wit. That’s not what we needed, though, and it’s definitely not what the victims deserved. Stewart was smart enough to clear the airwaves and be frank with us instead.

He didn’t tell any jokes or break any news we hadn’t heard before, but that was okay, because he was doing exactly what most comedians and reporters won’t do with their own high-profile platforms. He sat down and forced us to examine every single way in which the media has contributed to this toxic culture of inequality and hate. He spoke to the camera and condemned the federal government for its selective and convenient definition of “protecting Americans”. And most importantly, he called the massacre what it so obviously was: an act of terror.

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Stewart has enough command over his form to casually fill five minutes of air time with unscripted personal commentary. That’s not what made it surprising. His five-minute rant went viral, of course, but page clicks and watercooler conversations weren’t on Stewart’s mind that night. Like many Americans who have followed this year’s headlines with growing dread and sadness, Stewart had simply had enough. But if anyone can turn resignation and heartbreak into a compelling battle cry, he’s the one.

He’s right, of course. We’ve seen it too many times to count. When young, unarmed black men get shot to death, the character assassinations begin before the bloodstains dry. Execution isn’t the legal penalty for smoking weed, selling loose cigarettes or missing child support payments, but if you only watched cable news or read Internet comments over the past few years, you wouldn’t know it. When people of color are killed by people in positions of power and privilege, they’re treated like suspects while the killers get the “benefit of the doubt”. People don’t even have to make the racist associations themselves; reporters do the work for them, using words like “thug” and selecting photos that fit the narrative.

Meanwhile, when young, armed white men shoot people to death — even in sacred and safe spaces, like an elementary school or a church — the conversation goes somewhere else entirely. Their “shy” and “quiet” personalities are revealed through anecdotes as yearbook pictures capture their wholesome, youthful faces. Conversations about the weapons they used or the hateful, paranoid opinions they held are quickly redirected away from the source, and Stewart wasn’t afraid to explain exactly why: the media is the source.

As long as we reserve the word “terrorist” for people with brown skin and blame black communities for the devastation inflicted on them by systematic injustice, we’ll continue to create people like Dylan Roof. His racially motivated massacre wasn’t a one-off unrelated to institutional racism and class inequality, and Elliot Rodger’s attempted massacre of female college students wasn’t an anomaly unrelated to the objectification of women. Both mass shootings were direct outcomes of laws and news reports that favor white men over everyone else. Both were also fueled, then conveniently ignored, by the people who sell guns and block gun laws by spreading a sense of fear and entitlement among the privileged.

The rest of the news industry — from the so-called “liberal news” to the deceptively titled Fox News — should listen to what Stewart said. When he threw caution to the final-season wind, he proved that the The New York Times was right to compare him to journalism giant Edward R. Murrow. We can only hope he’s got a few more raw, honest rants in him before his last season comes to an end.

 

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