Come clean, Jon Stewart: you're an activist, journalist and a comedian

<em>The Daily Show</em> host is beginning to face up to the fact that he is more than a comic - whet

When I suggested earlier this week that Jon Stewart had been put on the spot during an interview on Fox with Chris Wallace, commenters - and indeed colleagues - argued that I had read the interview wrong. I thought Stewart looked flustered when Wallace argued that Stewart relies too much on the "I'm a comedian" defence. They argued that Stewart's response - "When did I say that I am only a comedian? I said I am comedian first" - showed that Wallace's criticism was false.

I still don't think it did, but it does reveal that something has changed in Stewart's physche. He's finally coming round to the fact that he is more than a comedian, whether he wants to be or not.

Until that interview, Stewart had always implied that because The Daily Show was a comedy show on a comedy channel, it shouldn't be taken that seriously. Watch the video of him on CROSSFIRE, or previous interviews on Fox. Indeed, moments before the "comedian first" comment in the Wallace interview, Stewart said: "I'm not an activist. I'm a comedian."

That is hogwash. There's a simple reason why some people think Stewart is an activist: he does things like organise mass rallies in the middle of Washington DC. Indeed, here's how Stewart described the "Rally to Restore Sanity" when he went on Fox in September last year:

The folks that I see in my gigs that I go out to are real Americans, plumbers and such. They tell me that they don't feel represented by the extremities they see on things like Fox News and other things like that. They say the real voice of the people has been muted by the extremists, that the loudest voices are the ones that seem to carry the day. So what I'm hearing is they want to feel a catharsis that they are not alone, that they're also represented. So that's why we are doing it. We are trying to find that thin sliver of America between pinhead and patriot.

That, to me, sounds like activism, rather than comedy.

Stewart is a comedian, but a lot of what The Daily Show does is journalism - with jokes. Stewart, finally, seems to have accepted that he is not "only a comedian". This is a step forward. Stewart needs to accept that he is an activist and a journalist, and then The Daily Show can get on with being the best news-based show on television.

That Stewart's show is regularly cited as one of the most trusted news sources in the US is not just evidence of the US's lousy news culture; it is an indication of the show's strength. The Daily Show investigates and digs out hypocrisy among both the media and politicians better than many news channel and newspapers. There is no reason, then, that The Daily Show can't be both a news show and a comedy show. Good satire informs and entertains.

Whether he wants to be or not, however, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are being yanked from the cushy, cocoon of "comedy" into "infotainment". This is not necessarily a bad thing. In Britain, Private Eye straddles the spheres of comedy and journalism perfectly. Why can't The Daily Show?

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”