October 17, 2004

Jon Stewart, civic hero, part 2…

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:

  1. Partisan fighting is not debate.
  2. Actual debate would be good for citizens.
  3. Shows such as Crossfire exploit political sound bites for dramatic gain at the expense of civic understanding.
  4. Partisan ranting in the guise of journalism, and presented on a news network that appears to take journalism seriously, hurts America.
  5. Journalists, even opinion journalists, should “work for America,” i.e. their first loyalty should be to the people.
  6. 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.
  7. Partisan ranting on shows such as Crossfire do not qualify as civilized discourse.
  8. 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.

13 Responses

  1. The most amusing “miss” on Carlson/Begala’s part was their assumption that the Daily Show is about political satire. As you point out, it’s a media criticism show, which just happens to focus on the political media because politics is where the media are failing most spectacularly at the moment.

  2. Tim 

    Shows such as Crossfire exploit political sound bites for dramatic gain at the expense of civic understanding.

    This suppresses candid, frank, or explanatory speech by news makers.

    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.

    Newsmakers, and their PR people, speak in the commodified language of news and op/ed and use it as (and as a part of) a marketing strategy.

    But I would also suggest there may be one big similarity: both audiences seek entertainment.

    One is gladatorial and the other is Shakespearean.

    But so what? Check blogs on the Left, Right and Middle Earth and everyone is in emphatic approval of Stewart’s appearance. That’s powerful. That’s hitting the proverbial nail where you should AND hitting the other guy’s thumb in the process. That’s speaking truth to power, and landing on the triple points square because the idiots deny they are a power or recognize the truth. It’s one thing to know you’re a power and deny the truth when spoken to you. How dense do you have to be to deny your even a power AND the truth. How arrogant do you have to be to sense that the truth is being said at your expense, the joke’s on you, everyone around you “gets it”, and you don’t.

    Why has the press been losing credibility for decades? Why are they hated? Stewart told them. But not just Carlson and Begala. Stewart told them all. It reverberated. It rippled. And if it is ignored, the hatred and distrust is confirmed and deepened.

  3. Tim 

    Oh, and the folks whose only comment about Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire is, “He called Carlson a dick!” live in the same world as Begala and Carlson.

  4. Sven 

    Crossfire is an obvious example of the vacuity of television politico-news programs. But shows can be horrible even without partisan ranting. Gwen Ifill’s banal Washington Week, in which reporters politely bat conventional Beltway wisdom around the table, comes to mind.

    It’s a vast, vast wasteland.

  5. Sven 

    Here’s an interesting tidbit: there are probably more people who’ve downloaded the Stewart clip than watch Crossfire.

    Audiences seek entertainment, indeed.

  6. the modern specialized theory of life on the Internet – and why jon stewart is cool

    its finally here. the governing force of life on the net. you see this every day. hell, you see this on coldworld.net! read more about it here. some would say this explains Jon Stewart’s calling Tucker Carlson a DICK on…

  7. Resident Harriden 

    Let me say up front that I don’t have cable and I have never seen The Daily Show or Crossfire, so all I know about this is from the internet. The thing that surprised me is that admiration for Jon Stewart fell along partisan lines. I was under the impression that he was a bipartisan political basher – that is obviously no longer true. I would have thought that since both the left and the right ( as well as the center) hate the media that all would have shouted loud hosannahs to Stewart. From my POV, calling Stewart a “hero” is a little overstated. My guess is that Stewart has a larger viewship than Crossfire (though CNN is not to be trifled with). This seems like the classic case of Bully Stewart kicking sand in the face of weakling Crossfire (did you notice how Carlson got most of the poop and not Begala?). If Stewart is truly a “hero” he should denounce the people who count in MSM (not Crossfire), which is Rather, Brokaw, Jennings, Koppel, etc. If he does that, he’ll be a “hero” to me – if not he’s just another media bully.

  8. acline 

    RH- While it is no secret that The Daily Show generally approaches things from the left, the show does come down hard on everyone (not necessarily in Stewart’s “interviews”). And I would not have called it the best media critique on TV if it didn’t give it just as hard to the networks. I called Stewart a civic hero based on the quality of his critique.

  9. Resident Harriden 

    Sorry, Doc, but what I’m reading on Center-Right blogs doesn’t confirm your view that The Daily Show is bipartisan. In fact many said they stopped watching when it became obvious that Stewart was just another lefty Bush-bashing comic like Al Franken or Whoopi Goldberg. As I’ve said, I don’t have a personal opinion about this, but this is what I have read. I still contend that if Stewart is really a “hero” he will have to slay bigger dragons than Crossfire. Maybe the left is just easily impressed.

  10. Let me suggest that you need to go watch the show with someone who has cable. Don’t take my word for it…or those cetner-right bloggers.

  11. Resident Harriden 

    I take your point that TV should be watched and not read!

  12. Passing it around

    Do regular journalists really ignore all the media criticism going on these days? Well, I’m just an anecdote, to be sure, but I’m watching the Jon Stewart video clip spread like a virus through my newsroom. And I suspect that’s going on in a lot of new…

  13. John Nowicki 


    Actually, he has done exactly what you say. Ted Koppel had a taped segment on Nightline with him where he took a number of shots as well. He forced Koppel into an awkward discussion of “facts vs truth” as a very weak defense.

    BTW – One thing I do notice. Has anyone ever considered for one second that the reason for all the “Bush Bashing” is that he deserves it? Empirically, the man has screwed the pooch all over the place.