When The Daily Show debuted in 1996 under host Craig Kilborn, it was billed as a parody of cable news shows. But under Jon Stewart, who took over as host in 1999, The Daily Show quickly pioneered its own style of news delivery, albeit one with a lot more dick jokes than your average broadcast. These days, The Daily Show relies on research and facts to produce its news segments and inform its interviews, putting just as much effort as traditional news programs into both sourcing its stories and determining which topics and headlines deserve the most weight on any given day.
Historically, the main difference between cable news and The Daily Show has been that the latter lives on Comedy Central, and accordingly, all its stories are delivered by comedians who are allowed — and encouraged — to lace the facts with an undercurrent of, "Can you believe this sh*t?" For so long, The Daily Show was essentially cable news's unrestrained id, free to openly mock and gawk at whatever it finds ridiculous.
But now we're seeing more and more of that approach on cable, and it's easy to understand why: The prospect — and then reality — of President Donald Trump essentially put the 24-hour new cycle on an aggressive round of steroids. Trump's willingness to dodge and warp the truth, antagonize the press, and laugh in the face of accepted norms has significantly changed the game. So maybe it's fitting that cable news has started mimicking The Daily Show rather than the other way around.
By and large, this Daily Show-ification of cable news is most often seen on left-leaning networks or with more liberal-skewing anchors, who are presumably experiencing the most steady, wonky disbelief in response to the new administration.
But even the conservative-skewing Fox News, whether consciously or not, will sometimes embrace The Daily Show's techniques. This is most often seen in its "man on the street" segments that send a correspondent out into the real world to collect unwittingly hilarious soundbites. Fox host Jesse Watters recently landed his own show within that genre, which — unlike the Fox and Friends model of sporadically interviewing people outside the studio — follows right in The Daily Show's tightly edited footsteps. Watters's interview segments are slickly produced and have clear themes and narratives, just like the segments helmed by The Daily Show's field correspondents. (Now, if only he would stop mistaking repeated stereotypes for comedy, he might be onto something.)
The cable news host who might rely most heavily on The Daily Show's style is MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who frequently uses Daily Show-esque editing techniques, sarcastic finger quotes, and overall quippy presentations of damning news footage to emphasize her points.
While Maddow has always delivered her more critical op-ed segments with the kind of wry horror Jon Stewart perfected during his Daily Show tenure, her use of that approach became particularly obvious and even more blatantly gobsmacked in the run-up to the November 2016 election. In October, as Trump's infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" comments were starting to make headlines, Maddow took a moment to look directly into the camera and remind her audience with a calm, but panicked smile, "you're awake, by the way."
For now, it seems as though an unprecedented period of news has inspired an unprecedented lack of filter in many cable news anchors. At a time when it feels like a huge story is breaking every other hour — all while the president and his advisers refer to the media as "the opposition party" — it's becoming harder and harder for journalists like Maddow and Tapper to contain their open shock and disdain.
Put more simply: No, they can't believe this sh*t, and that feeling isn't subtext anymore.
Commentary by Caroline Framke, the culture writer and "Chief Rihanna Enthusiast" at Vox. Follow her on Twitter @carolinefranke.
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