I apologize for my absence most of this week. A combination of a nasty head cold and a brief utter lack of motivation and inspiration – damn you wicked –ations – helped produce a basically empty week. I know I've become even more of a Daily Show/Jon Stewart fan site recently, but dammit if the man isn't carrying the banner for those of us who actually pay attention to the news media and refuse to call it liberal or conservative because ultimately it is really neither; instead it has simply become increasingly sucky.
Well, I don't know if this will be my absolutely final post on the Stewart/Crossfire storm, but I've been debating this week whether to bring it up again due to some other commentaries I've read online. Today I realized I had to, though, when I opened Variety and learned that none other than the estimable 60 Minutes has decided that Stewart's comments and confrontation with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala a week ago today was important enough to receive a segment on this Sunday's edition of the show. (UPDATE: This is what happens when you skim a story. As you can see, the Stewart segment had already been planned, but Steve Kroft went back to talk to Stewart again after the Crossfire appearance.)
In the story, Carlson continues to lower himself in my estimation by being completely oblivious to the fact that Stewart had him, his show and the entire news media dead-to-rights. "I think he's a lot less interesting as a media critic than he is as a comedian. He's a good comedian. He didn't tell me anything I haven't heard from drunk viewers in airport bars a hundred times." As I've mentioned before, I actually used to respect Carlson even if I disagreed with him, but comments such as this, which demean both Stewart and the general viewing public, prove that the conservative bow-tied one has simply become another cog in the mainstream media machinery which must defend itself at all costs rather than provide its intended service as a source of information to the masses. Maybe that's why Crossfire's viewership has been on a downward slope for a while. Back when it was good – that would be about a decade ago, before any of the current hosts were participants – the show was a lynchpin of CNN's schedule, anchoring the pre-primetime lineup at 7:30 PM with latenight repeats as well. Now it's relegated to the late-afternoon slot of 4:30 PM when no serious working adult is home to watch-it. By the way, that's 1:30 PM on the West Coast, and CNN doesn't have separate feeds, nor does the show repeat at all. How can Carlson argue that a show which used to take place with nothing more than a desk, an empty black background and its participants is not simple political theater now that it takes place in front of a loud studio audience and has literally adding bells and whistles to the discussion. CNN's decision to jazz up the show has only served to diminish its value.
But I don't need to go on again about the demise of Crossfire since the show does a good job on its own of proving its worthlessness. I'm actually fascinated by the uproar created by Stewart, particularly in that more people seem to be talking about his decision to speak-out on the show and whether or not he has the right rather than arguing the points he was making. It seems that few people disagree that much with Stewart's argument; they just believe he's not the best messenger.
I thought Dana Stevens' reaction on her "Surfergirl" blog was interesting and valid, except why is it "Stewart's job to make us laugh, not to lecture us"? What makes Stewart's commentary on the current state of the news media any less valuable than a supposed "professional" media critic. The thought that it's not is simply absurd and without any merit. If I somehow had the opportunity to be the sole guest on an episode of Crossfire, I'd say the same damn things, and you know what? Maybe my opinion should count more than some columnist because I'm the actual audience for the people I'm criticizing. What really qualifies "media critics" other than the amount of time they pay attention to the media? The only people who will become defensive and argue that I'm incorrect are, in fact, those who call themselves "media critics" and receive a paycheck for being such. However, I consider myself a "media critic" and actually a better one than many of those deemed "professional."
Stevens linked to a fantastic post by Jim Treacher containing many points with which I agreed. But Treacher seemed to be annoyed by what he called Stewart's "Clown nose off, clown nose on" representations as a "pundit and comedian." He seems to think it's OK for Stewart to be both, "just maybe not in the same breath." He was annoyed by Stewart's repeated utilization of "we're a comedy show" in response to Carlson's defensive questioning of why he lobbed softball's at John Kerry when he had him on The Daily Show.
Treacher's post has apparently yielded nearly 200 comments, one of which is mine. Here's what I wrote on his blog:
I think your point is well-taken Jim, but I also think you are mischaracterizing what Stewart was doing on the show. His response, "We're a comedy show" was in direct response to Carlson's repeated attempts to ask him why he couldn't have asked John Kerry more substantive questions on TDS. It's not clown nose on, clown nose off in that respect. Stewart's main argument was the very point that The Daily Show isn't the same thing as Crossfire; that one is on, to paraphrase Stewart's words, Comedy Central, a channel where his lead-in is puppets who make crank phone calls; while the other is on CNN, a channel that calls itself our "most trusted news source." Carlson and Begala wanted Stewart to come on their show and be the court jester and he was trying to be a normal citizen fed up with both sides of the punditry taking over the major mass media by making almost every minute of programming op-ed. He wasn't criticizing liberals or conservatives; just for once (and surprisingly) Carlson had an even bigger mouth than Begala.
To this viewer, Stewart became the most important political and media commentator of our day simply by not being afraid to take on two TV personalities, a show and to a degree the entire Fourth Estate itself. There's no hypocrisy there.
The same goes for the content of his show. Stewart has never claimed to be an independent, such as O'Reilly, and the show's politics lean left, but that doesn't mean they don't make fun of both sides, and anyone who says otherwise doesn't watch the show. On last night's program, the first joke, after his comments regarding the Crossfire appearance, was ridiculing Kerry for how many numbers, as in percentages of this and that, he used in the debate. Stewarts joke: like a nervous student he asked, "Is this going to be on the ballot?" He also has thrown just as many softballs as people like Dan Bartlett and Ralph Reed as he did to John Kerry, and I'm sure if Bush ever actually did the show, Stewart would be more nervous comedy-show-host with his questions than Chris Matthews.
Just my 48 cents (inflation, you know).
There are people who obviously disagree with me. Another user identified as Junyo wrote the following comment, to which I obviously could not disagree more (I've copied and pasted, so any typos are from the actual comment):
Just so we're clear, Stewart's self righteous "clown nose off, clown nose on" stance of above-it-all-edness is disingenuous since his show (among others) is what created the problem in the first place, by providing an easy out to pols who wanted exposure without risk or substantive discussion. Stewart claims that shows like Crossfire are "part of [the candidates'] strategies." What, exactly, does Stewart think his is? Bill Clinton did MTV and Arsenio Hall rather than real news specifically to avoid real questioning; other politians took note. Why does Stewart think that Kerry would do his show, and Oprah's, and other non-news shows while systematically avoiding "real" reporters (see http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20040908-104357-3415r.htm) other than the fact that Stewart is a soft interview that still provides exposure to millions of likely Kerry voters. In other words, strategy. And while Stewart's profile is enhanced and profits immeasurably from being able to garner appearances by such elites on his show, he makes it that much harder for shows like Crossfire to obtain those same interviews, and to ask the questions he claims to want them to ask. If you're a candidate and you want facetime with a couple million potential voters where do you go - to get grilled by Russert or Matthews or joke around with Stewart, and have him ask how you're holding up. And if you're Crossfire what incentive do you have to do substantive debate or meaningful questioning of candidates when every such debate and/or question drives viewers and guests to easier venues - like The Daily Show. Stewart's comments are the height of hypocrisy.
Sorry, Junyo, but most of your argument is simply a load of crap and just a part of a poor excuse for a blame game. Yes, politicians go on shows where they won't have to answer tough questions because it's easier. Kerry and Bush both have done it. But believe me, there hasn't been a day when any of the interview or debate shows have had any problem getting guests whether it's other members of the media acting as pundits, congressmen or actual candidates. The fact that someone like Ann Coulter, who takes op-ed to the extreme with purely hateful rhetoric, can be well-known enough to sell even one book is a testament to what has happened to talking head shows and has nothing to do with The Daily Show or Arsenio Hall. The candidates have the ability to manufacture there own softball arenas whenever they want, as the Bush campaign has done repeatedly this year by having attendees sign loyalty oaths and forcibly removing anyone who mouths any dissent. They don't need the entertainment shows in the firmament to cater to them: they can simply agree not to be interviewed by anyone.
If anything, political satire like that expressed by The Daily Show or Leno or Letterman or Bill Maher or Dennis Miller -- regardless of the partisan views expressed -- is valuable because it encourages the public to learn about the issues and enter the debate. That debate should then take place with the guidance of the news media which should investigate the issues and arguments fully and, preferably, without bias. Obviously, it will never be pure, but it sure as hell could be a lot better than it is right now, and while partisan debate shows can be entertaining and valuable as well, wouldn't it be nice to have the hosts actually question and debate their respective opposites rather than lead them on with the next partisan talking point? What all these shows need are independent thinkers rather than, as Stewart justly characterized them, partisan hacks.
My only problem with Stewart is that I think he does himself a disservice. It is not his responsibility to throw hardballs at either Kerry or Bush, or White House Communications director Dan Bartlett who had his own easy appearance on The Daily Show. I don't believe that most watchers of his show formulate all their opinions simply from watching Comedy Central, and Stewart, to his credit, has stated on The Daily Show that his audience needs to go elsewhere and make up their own minds. Ironically, Stewart throws much tougher questions at people like Jennifer Love Hewitt trying to plug her disaster of a film Garfield: The Movie than he does at any political or media figure who comes on the show, and that's probably as it should be.
But when Stewart is invited onto other shows as a guest, and when he has the opportunity to speak, why shouldn't he take the mainstream news media down a peg? Why doesn't he have the right to say what I find myself screaming at the TV whenever Carville opens his mouth or Novak rings his stupid little bell? He not only has the right, but as someone whose show's very purpose is to make fun of the news and the media that covers it, he actually has the responsibility to become an honest media critic when he's not performing. As he said to Carlson, "No. No. I'm not going to be your monkey." That may be hard for Carlson to understand since just about everyone else who appears on Crossfire and shows like it is just that: a trained circus animal.