Jon Stewart has a new book out, a hit television show on Comedy Central and the New York Times recently called him the “most trusted man in fake news.” So when he went on CNN’s Crossfire Friday to promote his new book, it was both surprising and compelling to watch a national celebrity hold the two hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, to task for a type of journalism that Mr. Stewart called, “bad for America.” But will anyone listen?
In today’s information-saturated world, national news media outlets have not been the brightest light in our universe. There have been Swift Boat ads, Sinclair Group demands, 60 Minutes slip-ups, and other journalistic misses, and all in all the media has lost the faith of many of its viewers. Meanwhile, cable news is on the rise, and the power that Fox News has generated has not been understated. In the midst of all of this, CNN, the original all-news network, must find new ways to compete, and one of their most successful programs has been the incendiary Crossfire.
The show’s format promises a debate; two voices, one from the left and one from the right, will confront each other over one of the day’s hot topics. Generally, this results in a large amount of screaming, some name calling, and a presumed level of fun and merriment for everyone involved. But it seems that one of America’s funniest people, Jon Stewart, is not laughing.
Mr. Stewart spent his thirty minutes on the show calling the hosts, “bad for America”, “political hacks” and pleading with them to just, “stop, stop, stop, stop.” Whether he took the hosts by surprise or not is debatable; the show is, as he pointed out, theatre, and such dramatics are well suited to theatrical debate. Certainly, he pandered to his audience as much as the two hosts to theirs-his left-leaning followers must have expected at least a little venom from a man who has constantly trashed the very show he was appearing on.
But Mr. Stewart struck at something deeper than just Crossfire in his appearance, and he proved again that is his is a valuable voice in American journalism. Stewart’s focus was on the way that the media plays the politicians’ games, and that instead of “holding their feet to the fire” (a popular slogan on the show), actually plays into the spin and manipulations of campaign politics.
And, for the most part, it’s true. The post-debate polls show that a large amount of Americans have become less concerned with who actually won the debates (almost unanimously in favor of Kerry), and instead think, now, that debates are not a valid measurement of a leader. This is just the kind of response that avoids the issues of politics and instead focuses more clearly than perhaps it should on the aesthetics. It’s no revelation that the American voting system relies heavily on the public’s perception of a candidate’s character, but Stewart’s point is that we should expect our news media to understand that and, ideally, ignore it in their pursuit of real news.
Mr. Stewart’s most potent point is that the news often lets us down when they do not analyze the presumed facts that the public receives. This is a notion echoed most recently in a column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times where he begged news outlets to analyze the facts of the debates on the front page, and leave the aesthetic interpretations for the back. Unfortunately, this may not be what has happened. The most memorable moment from these debates, despite the poor performance of the President, may be that Senator Kerry called Mary Cheney a lesbian, and it would appear that very little fact-checking is necessary in that claim.
Both hosts appeared a little annoyed with Mr. Stewart’s approach, and Mr. Carlson, fed up, intoned, “Jon, Jon, Jon. I think you’re a good comedian. You’re lectures are boring.” And that might be the very problem. Often times, journalistic integrity is not as compelling for an audience as, say, a fistfight between Congressmen. But one would hope that the passions behind both instances are if not equitable then, at the very least, comparable. In one moment of blunt clarity Mr. Stewart noted, “You know, the interesting thing is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”
Stewart speaks from a privileged position, however, one that allows him a little moral superiority without much of the responsibility of journalists. His show, The Daily Show, is a fake news show, in the mold of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Fro this perspective he has virtually no responsibility as a newscaster, though he does not shy away from criticizing those who do. The Daily Show does consistently hold both political sides to task, though some would argue that he leans a little more to the left in his comedy. But Stewart’s most powerful point, and he does make it consistently, remains the lack of critical and unbiased analysis of the news in our major media outlets. It’s a trend that seems destined to continue, despite his increasingly-powerful objections.
At one point in their discussion, the hosts of Crossfire question Mr. Stewart’s habit of not asking tougher questions of his guests, particularly Senator John Kerry. It’s a poignant moment, mostly because, as Stewart points out, this is a CNN news program comparing itself to a fake news show on Comedy Central-a juxtaposition that seems not-quite-jarring-enough for the CNN hosts. One lecture/argument aside, we have a serious gap in our journalism, and it’s a shame that our loudest advocate is, essentially, a comedian. Stewart’s show is both brilliant and incisive, and it is the comic edge that he provides that lends it the seriousness and gravity the program is becoming increasingly known for. But Mr. Stewart remains, and this is in large part because of his own public disclaimers, a comedian and not a journalist. And we, the public, are laughing, but still missing what we might desperately need from the news. Somewhere between Crossfire and The Daily Show there is a gap to be filled-it’s just a matter of finding the right journalists.