Jon Stewart Turning Down 'Meet The Press' Is The Smart Move For All Involved

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 8: Jon Stewart arrives for the red carpet for his movie Rosewater at Princess of Wales. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 8: Jon Stewart arrives for the red carpet for his movie Rosewater at Princess of Wales. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

New York Magazine's Gabriel Sherman managed to get media observers all hot and bothered yesterday when he splashed a pretty great scoop from behind the scenes at NBC News. As Sherman reports, when NBC News' president Deborah Turness was pondering "Meet The Press'" transition from the David Gregory Era to its current Chuck Todd-issance, she briefly paused along the way to sound out "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart on whether he might want to take over as the "MTP's" host. According to Sherman's source, NBC News was richly baiting the lure: "They were ready to back the Brink's truck up."

Obviously, this courtship was ultimately unconsummated. And for everyone involved, this is probably for the best. (For example, NBC News still has that Brink's truck, which is nice.)

The person who really dodges a bullet here is Stewart himself, by not allowing this truck full of Peacock ducats to tempt him into taking a job that he'd not only really, truly hate having, but also would probably have damaged the legacy he's built for himself as an outsider critic. There's something genuinely Faustian about this attempted assignation: How much money would it take to convince a man to become the thing he's always despised? In this case, the answer would appear to be "more than you can put in one armored car."

But the idea of having Stewart take over "Meet The Press" isn't crazy. Sherman points out that "the comedian-cum-media-critic possesses something that broadcast executives covet: a young loyal audience." You can actually extend that covetousness well beyond the realm of broadcast news -- the millennial audience in particular is the nut that every media organization is currently trying to crack. Some are handling the task with more aplomb than others. More often than not, it's the traditional media outlets that have struggled to unlock its treasures. As Nieman Lab's Ken Doctor writes:

[The millennial] generation will spend $200 billion annually by 2017 (and $10 trillion in their lifetime) in the U.S. alone. It's the lower end of the 25-54 audience that TV advertisers covet, and therein lies a new tale of budding ad competition. Young consumers' brand buying preferences remain open to suggestion.

Add it all up, and we see why hundreds of millions of dollars is being invested in these newsy millennial-targeting sites. These startups may take differing approaches, but they share a dead aim at the sweet spots of this era. For audience: video, mobile, and POV reporting. For revenue: native, social, and video advertising.

Legacy media gnaw at these phenomena. They try to graft them on to their mature trunks; often the graft doesn’t quite take. It's far easier for digital native newsy companies to meld them into products and businesses that look different.

And let's face it, bringing Stewart to the "Meet The Press" studio would have been something of an awkward graft. Stewart's always been a capable interviewer, if we define "interviewing" as the simple task of genially greeting a guest and provoking an entertaining conversation. Once Stewart strays from that sort of interview to actual journalistic interlocution, reviews are mixed. Sherman, for example, assesses Stewart quite highly. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum rates him about as low as you can go. For my part, I've found Stewart to be an intermittently capable and always well-meaning interrogator whose reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. (There's nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, one of Stewart's finest journalistic qualities is his willingness to admit this, as he did in the aftermath of his failed interview of Bush-era legal counselor John Yoo.)

Mediaite's Joe Concha, who's got a really fine read on this story as well, goes further in pointing out that the circumstances that allow Stewart to succeed at "The Daily Show" just aren't viable for "Meet The Press":

But while Stewart often does a good interview, for him to carry a full hour with panels and deep dives into policy would not play well once the novelty of seeing him in Tim Russert's old chair wore off. Throw in the fact that he wouldn't have the benefit of 18 writers or (and this is important) a pumped-up studio audience applauding every line, and you have a show that would largely come across as out of place in terms of content and atmosphere.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Stewart is that he's never been eager to claim the name of journalist, preferring instead to maintain his "comedian-first" identity. ("Daily Show" alum and "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver maintains the same distinction.) To many, this is something of a maddening dodge. After all, Stewart makes many of the moves of traditional journalism, while at the same time handing down critiques of the media with something of a triumphalist flair. Critics of his "I'm just a comedian" pose often characterize his stance as an unwillingness to take responsibility for his work or to admit that as a person of influence, he's accountable for the quality of his product.

A more balanced view of Stewart's philosophy is to concede that he's more vested in taking responsibility for the comedy (by honoring the traditions from which he emerged). It's a simple declaration (or maybe a warning) that he's not always going to choose to do what journalism demands -- that sooner or later, Stewart's going to have to go with whatever generates the most laughter. Like it or not, he's allowed to do that. But that also makes him a poor choice to helm a Sunday morning public affairs show.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to learn that Turness was contemplating such a radical departure for "Meet The Press" -- and pay through the moment of zen for it -- because now we know that somewhere at the back of Turness' mind lurks the notion that something really drastic must be done with the show, beyond the new host and remodeled set that it has now.

She's not wrong. One of the more infuriating things about the major networks' Sunday morning offerings -- "Meet The Press," "Fox News Sunday," "This Week" and "Face The Nation" -- is that for all we hear about the intense competition that exists betwixt and between these brands, each show seems caught in the same hall of mirrors, and the only race is in the direction of becoming a wan and enervating imitation of all the others. Collectively, the four shows have all of the substance and energy of a pool report, with none of its cost-effectiveness. Meanwhile, if you go back to the organizations that are competing for the younger audience noted in Ken Doctor's piece, you see a drive toward innovation and differentiation that the Pale Kings of Sunday Morning consistently lack.

There's room to do something bold on Sunday morning. Sooner or later, one of these Sunday morning shows is going to quit this slow game of chicken and take a chance. Let's say this about the notion of getting Jon Stewart to fill Tim Russert's shoes: It's a bad idea, but it's the right instinct.

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