Discover more from I Might Be Wrong
Jon Stewart's New Show Isn't Comedy, and That's Fine. But It's a Bad News Show.
I'll try to hold him to the standard to which he's held others
In my opinion, The Problem with Jon Stewart isn’t as funny as The Daily Show. Honestly, in my opinion, it’s not as funny as Donahue. But you know what: That’s fine. Stewart has made it pretty clear that his new show isn’t meant to be as funny as his earlier work. And I absolutely respect that — sometimes, an artist needs to do something different. Not everyone can follow the AC/DC model, where you arrange the same five chords and 16 words in different orders for 50 years.
So, the show is less comedy and more news. Cool. But is the news part any good? Based on the first episode, my opinion is “no”. I think Stewart is trafficking in oversimplification and misinformation.
It’s weird for me to type that, because I’m a long-time Jon Stewart fan. He was a powerhouse comic in the ‘90s; it’s fair to say he’s one of the reasons I started doing standup. His takedowns of Fox News in the 2000s had a major impact on me. He’s also, in a very direct way, responsible for my career.I like this guy. I want to like this show.
Or…do I? Full disclosure: I was briefly considered for a role on the show, though I didn’t get very far.If you want to interpret everything that follows as sour grapes from a guy who didn’t book the gig, that’s totally fair. Though, I think that my more influential bias comes from a different life experience: The almost nine years I spent working for the Environmental Protection Agency. That experience led me to believe — I would say know — that Stewart omitted vital details in his opening-show story about military burn pits.
The topic in brief: In war zones, the military will often dispose of trash by just burning it in an open pit. All sorts of stuff goes into the pit: Trash, munitions, medical waste, and more gets dumped in, splashed with jet fuel, and burned. It sounds like a terrible idea. In fact, it sounds a bit like what my granddad used to do every fall and a bit like the opening gambit in a Wile E. Coyote scheme.
Exposure to burn pits may be causing adverse health effects for veterans. In August, the VA added asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis to the list of conditions for which veterans exposed to burn pits can claim presumptive benefits.But vets are filing claims for many other conditions, ranging from respiratory diseases to cancer. Did burn pits cause these conditions? Maybe. Many people, including President Biden, think there may be a link. But at present, we just don’t know.
If Stewart had done a piece saying “burn pits might be causing these diseases,” I wouldn’t be writing this column. But he used omissions, distortions, and oversimplifications to turn “might be” into “are”. It’s the type of anti-science populism that Stewart used to rip apart on The Daily Show.
I was on the other side of this narrative all the time at EPA. The story goes like this: There’s a source of exposure, maybe a factory or a toxic waste site. Someone develops a disease, and believes the source of exposure is responsible. Is it? It’s usually very hard to say. A reporter comes to EPA and wants us to say “the site caused this person’s disease,” but we almost never know that. And please remember: The subject of the story is a person with a heartbreaking and serious disease. You very much want to say “Yes, the factory caused this person’s cancer.” But if the science doesn’t say that, you just can’t say that.
The reporter’s next move is predictable: They put a line in their story that says “The site produces toxins x, y, and z, which are known to be hazardous.” This is exactly what Stewart does; he points to the fact that the burn pits produce a number of harmful toxins. He treats this as dispositive evidence of a link, saying:
“We know exposure to those chemicals makes you sick. We know! They know! We know they know!”
Anyone who’s familiar with toxins — or any reporter who does even a little bit of homework — knows that the mere presence of toxins doesn’t tell you much on its own. You also need to know the exposure levels. The truth is, we’re all exposed to toxins all the time. Of course, it’s usually in such infinitesimal levels that we don’t worry about it. The exposure level is a vital piece of data, but most reporters leave it out. They just say “Toxins are present!” which causes the audience to think “Oh my God!” It’s a fear-mongering, hack move that I’ve seen a million times. Stewart does it here.
He also cites a misleading statistic about VA benefit claims. He quotes this article from Military.com, which says that the VA had denied 72% of burn pit claims. That appears to be true, but Stewart (unlike the article) provides no context. What would the appropriate number of accepted claims be? Claims are made by different individuals under different circumstances involving different diseases and different treatments. 72 percent denial seems high, but the same article mentions that 63 percent of cancer claims (relating to anything, not just burn pits) from Global War on Terror service members are rejected.So maybe 72 percent isn’t so high, after all. Also, the article says that the most common reason for a claim to be denied — 43 percent of that 72 percent — is not having a diagnosed medical condition. That doesn’t have anything to do with the toxicity of burn pits.
Stewart repeatedly misrepresents the state of the science. At one point, he says:
“So now veterans are dying and going bankrupt because DoD and the VA are forcing them to prove a connection that they already internally admit exists."
This is just false. The memo Stewart seems to be citing (he referenced it a moment before) to prove that DoD and the VA “internally admit” there’s a link is this 2010 VA training letter. The letter acknowledges the presence of chemicals at burn pits, sometimes above military exposure guidelines. But acknowledging the presence of chemicals is a far cry from establishing a known link to any disease for which a soldier might file a claim regardless of where they served or when. Again, it’s about exposure levels. Stewart’s “they admit it internally” narrative is not true.
The fact that he cites that memo is particularly strange given what he said a moment earlier:
“The VA and the DoD keep paying for studies to find the proof, using data provided to them by the Pentagon. But lo and behold, the studies are inconclusive. Hmm.”
He seems to be referring mostly — possibly entirely — to this 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.It should be said: NASEM is an independent non-profit. Personally, I wouldn’t discount their independence just because the VA funded the study. At any rate: Stewart’s bigger complaint seems to be that their data is drawn from DoD. Which is true: The primary data input comes from DoD’s Enhanced Particulate Matter Surveillance Program. But that is the same data that Stewart cited in the 2010 VA training letter — the same samples are used in both documents. The truth is, that program is the program that raised concerns about toxins produced by burn pits. But it wasn’t conclusive. Stewart cited the exact same data as incontrovertible proof of toxic exposure in one instance and waved it away as “provided by the Pentagon” in another.
Stewart continues his “the Pentagon knows there’s a connection” narrative in his interview with VA Secretary Denis McDonough. It’s a strange conversation; Stewart goes back and forth between acknowledging that the science hasn’t established a link and pretending that it has. In the second half of the interview, Stewart finally gives up on the “the Pentagon knows” narrative and has the conversation he should have been having the whole time: He questions whether the VA’s process is just too slow. Have we set an impossibly-high bar for these claims? Maybe we have. Maybe we should make it easier for these claims to be paid regardless of the evidence. But we shouldn’t pretend that good evidence exists. I recommend watching the chunk from 35:00 to 41:00; that’s an honest conversation without any sensationalist pseudo-journalistic bullshit.
You either believe in epidemiological data, or you don’t. You either believe in statistical evidence over anecdotal evidence, or you don’t. You either believe that government scientists should be free from political interference, or you don’t. You either believe that journalists should be held to standards of intellectual honesty, or you don’t. If you pick and choose when you believe these things, then you don’t believe them. Reviews of The Problem with Jon Stewart tell me that the second episode (which isn’t out yet) is about people refusing to wear masks; if Stewart says “follow the science” at any point, I will shit a complete leather-bound set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
If I have a belief, then I should be confident that the truth will back that belief. And if it doesn’t, then the solution is to change my belief, not bend the truth. Obviously, I think veterans should get coverage for service-induced injuries. The shame here is that Stewart almost certainly could have done an honest, non-sensationalistic piece that would have left people thinking “Wow, we need to get to the bottom of this, and fast.”
So why didn’t he? Well, I worked in this field for six years, I know how it’s done: You shade the piece to craft a splashy narrative. If the research doesn’t fit your story, you misrepresent it a bit. You shorthand things in misleading ways. You omit crucial details. You put your thumb on the scale to craft a story that leaves people pounding their fists and yelling “This is an outrage!” The last thing you want is some multifaceted, grey mess that makes people think “This is complex.”
I’m fine with Stewart not being funny. You may have noticed that this post hasn’t been funny; clearly, I endorse — some would say embody — the concept of a comedian not being funny. If Jon Stewart wants to do a news show, then I’m fine with that. But based on the first episode, I don’t think it’s a news show that I’m going to watch.
Jon Stewart hired John Oliver, and John Oliver hired me. Pretty direct. Also, it was Stewart’s executive producer who spotted me in a club and put me on the list of people who could submit packets to The Daily Show, which eventually led to the Last Week Tonight gig.
Honestly, not getting hired for a show is par for the course. You’re in the mix for a lot of things, and very few of them come through.
“Presumptive benefits” means that your claim is presumed to be the result of your military service.
But there’s some nuance behind this nuance: 63 percent of claims are rejected for cancer, not all claims, and it seems that claims for conditions other than cancer might be approved more frequently. Also, deployed service members are twice as likely as non-deployed service members to file a cancer claim. There’s a lot going on in these statistics, and citing a top-line number doesn’t do much to sort through the noise.
Also, by the way: Of course the data came from the Pentagon. The data are air samples from US military bases that had burn pits; those pits don’t exist anymore. You can’t send an independent scientist to the base to collect new data. The NASEM re-analyzed air samples the military collected in the 2000s because those were the samples that were taken.