I wrote yesterday’s entry about Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire based on the transcript. After watching the video, I realized I have quite a bit more to say about his “performance.” I could tell from the text he was serious. But you must see the video to realize that Stewart entered the lion’s den to kill the lion, not make him laugh.
I have said, quite seriously, that The Daily Show With Jon Stewart offers the best media criticism on television. Yes, the show is often silly. Yes, it follows a show about puppets making crank phone calls. Yes, Stewart’s questioning of his guests is, shall we say, uneven (which is an odd criticism considering the nature of the show). But, also yes, the pointedness of the satire and the depth of media literacy combine to expose and attack the ills of our media environment like no other show on television. And it’s funnier ‘n hell!
Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson are easy targets because they take themselves seriously while participating in one of the worst abominations ever inflicted on news audiences. They are beyond embarrassment, which I suppose is a good thing for them because Stewart showed them for the vacuous fools they are. Stewart exposed the fact that shows such as Crossfire are puddle deep in intellectual content and without merit in journalistic content.
CNN ought to be embarrassed. But if one sets up a 24-hours news network one must fill 24 hours with programming. And because of the type of medium television is, it must be filled with drama.
Let’s take a look at what Stewart said to Carlson and Begala. I have abstracted from his comments these propositions about the news media and civic discourse:
- Partisan fighting is not debate.
- Actual debate would be good for citizens.
- Shows such as Crossfire exploit political sound bites for dramatic gain at the expense of civic understanding.
- Partisan ranting in the guise of journalism, and presented on a news network that appears to take journalism seriously, hurts America.
- Journalists, even opinion journalists, should “work for America,” i.e. their first loyalty should be to the people.
- Many opinion journalists (and revolving-door pretenders) have allowed themselves to become part of the information strategies of politicians, i.e. many opinion journalists can no longer be thought of as independent of faction.
- Partisan ranting on shows such as Crossfire do not qualify as civilized discourse.
- The news media have a responsibility to encourage civil, civic discourse.
I agree with each of these points. To be sure, some are based on assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we are willing to adjust our thinking as we learn.
Thinking and learning and listening are, however, three things Carlson and Begala are incapable of, as the transcript clearly shows. These guys cannot hear Stewart. He walked into their house, slapped them in the face intellectually, and demonstrated the idiocy of their show. They were put off that he wasn’t being funny (although he was!). They knew enough to be insulted, but they did not know enough to realize how correct Stewart is about what Crossfire is and the harm it causes.
To realize these things, however, would require that Carlson and Begala care about civic discourse and the public they should be serving. They don’t. They are entertainers. They are partisan hacks, just as Stewart charges.
There’s been a lot of talk about a report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showing that viewers of The Daily Show know more about the presidential campaign than viewers of some news programs. And as I said, the reason for this may be that to understand the humor one must understand the news. I’d be willing to bet that Crossfire and The Daily Show attract very different audiences. But I would also suggest there may be one big similarity: both audiences seek entertainment.
It’s just too scary to contemplate the possibility that people tune in to Crossfire looking for information and knowledge.