Does sharing bad news contribute to hopelessness? In this 2007 moment from Bill Moyers Journal, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart talks about his struggle to remain empathic in a world of concurrent tragedies, and the importance of delivering news with context.
Watch the entire 30-minute conversation between Bill Moyers and Jon Stewart.
BILL MOYERS: I watched the interview you did the other night with the former Iraqi official, Ali Allawi. And I was struck that you were doing this soon after the massacre at Virginia Tech. It wasn’t your usually Daily Show banter.
CLIP: THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART
JON STEWART: On a more personal note… I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to broach it, but we in this country we have a very tragic situation occur at one of our universities and, it really has taken the country aback and there’s a real grieving process that we’re going through — and going through it mourning and learning about the victims and — learning about it and showing our support, you know, I hesitate to say, how does your country handle what is that type of carnage on a daily basis? Is there a way to grieve? Is there a numbness that sets in? How is that?
ALI ALLAWI: Well, I think the scale of violence in Iraq is really inconceivable in your terms…
JON STEWART: Right.
ALI ALLAWI: We have, on a daily basis, what you had the other day in Virginia Tech. I mean massacres of that scale. Practically on a daily basis and it’s very hard to grieve. Most of the-most of the way that people do treat this is just to leave the country. We now have a very large external refugee problem. Nearly two million Iraqis have left the country and internal refugee problem also, too many people displaced.
But the scale of violence and its continuity is such that it really numbs you. And in my case for example I had 6 people whom I had appointed at various positions in the government killed, including my office manager. We had this suicide bomber walk in to my contingent of guards. It’s quite a-quite a serious psychological problem that’s going to be one of the legacies of this terrible crisis.
JON STEWART: Yes, and I truly, I cannot fathom it and I just recall, you know, there’s been so much information and I was becoming wrapped up in our grief and then I saw the headline today of literally 150 people killed and — it just sends an awful dagger to your heart — like I can’t imagine how they deal with it.
END CLIP: THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART
BILL MOYERS: I mean, watching it I said, “Something’s going on with Stewart there.” What was it?
JON STEWART: Well, first of all, there’s you know, the process that we that was put the show together is always going to be affected by the you know, the climate that we live in. And there was a pall cast over the country. But also you know, you’re fighting your own sadness during the day. Having nothing to do with that, we felt — we feel no obligation to follow the news cycle. In other words, I felt no obligation to cover this story in anyway, because we’re not like I said, we’re not journalists. And at that point, there’s nothing sort of funny or absurd or to say about it.
But, there is a sadness that you can’t escape, just within yourself. And I’m also interviewing a guy who’s just written a book about his experience living in Iraq, faced with the type of violence that we’re talking about on a, you know, as he said, an unimaginable scale. And I think that the combination of that is very hard to shake.
And I know that my job is to shake it, and to perform, that’s why it’s performing and not you know, it wouldn’t be a very interesting show if I just came out one day and said, “I’m going to sit here in a ball and rock back and forth. And won’t you join me for a half hour of sadness.” You know, they I– have to I have to
BILL MOYERS: People come expecting more. People come expect..but that wasn’t performance, when you were wrestling with the sadness you were feeling with him.
JON STEWART: With him. Well, it– I thought it was relevant to the conversation I was having with him. Which was a the reason that it– sort of occurred to me was you know, I was I was obviously following the Internet headlines all day. And there was you know, this enormous amount of space and coverage to Virginia Tech, as there should have been. And I happened to catch, sort of a headline lower down, which was 200 people killed in four bomb attacks in Iraq. And I think my focus on what was happening here versus sort of this peripheral vision thing that caught my eye about, “Oh, right, there are lives–” I think it was a moment of– I felt guilty.
BILL MOYERS: Guilty?
JON STEWART: For not having the empathy for their suffering on a daily basis that I feel sometimes that I should.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever think that perhaps what I do in reporting documentaries about reality and what you do in poking some fun and putting some humor around the horrors of the world, feed into the sense of helplessness of people.
JON STEWART: No. I mean, again, I don’t know, because I don’t know how people feel. And you know, that’s the beauty of TV, is they can see us, but we can’t see them. I think that, if we do anything in a positive sense for the world, is provide one little bit of context, that’s very specifically focused, and hopefully people can add to their entire puzzle that gives them a larger picture of what it is that they see.
But, I don’t think, if anything, I don’t think it’s a feeling of hopelessness that people feel. I think if they feel — if they’re feeling what we’re feeling, it’s that this is how we fight back. I can only fight back in a way that I feel like I’m talented. And I feel like the only thing that I can do, and I’ve been fired from enough jobs, that I’m pretty confident in saying this, the only thing that I can do, even a little bit better than most people, is create that sort of that context with humor.