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June 19, 2011
Jon Stewart Does Cable News (again)
Jon Stewart is back in the news, appearing today on Fox News Sunday. The widely accepted view is that his political satire is a boon to our democracy, and totally divorced from partisanship. Stewart gained visibility from a previous appearance on cable news, a 2004 debate against Tucker Carlson, which elevated Stewart as a paragon of integrity. Let's review that fateful exchange:
On October 15, 2004, Stewart appeared on Crossfire. He was arrogant and insulting from the beginning of the interview. He proceeded to lecture co-hosts Carlson and Paul Begala on why they are "hurting America." Carlson pointed out how contradictory Stewart's sanctimonious diatribe was -- he had accused Crossfire and similar shows of being too hard on politicians, while in the next breath saying that they are "part of [politicians] strategies." Perhaps frustrated by his own non-sequitur, Stewart resorted to calling the hosts of Crossfire "political...hacks." Carlson, justifiably offended, saw fit to point out "something valuable I think that we do that I'd like to see you [do]...when politicians come on it's nice to get them to answer a question. I want to contrast our questions with some that you asked John Kerry recently." Here Stewart, sensing he is about to be rhetorically obliterated, falls back on his trusty "it's just a comedy show" defense. Nonetheless, Carlson proceeds to quote Stewart's ridiculous questions to then presidential candidate, John Kerry: "How are you holding up? Is it hard not to take the attacks personally?"
From here the Crossfire appearance degenerates. Begala points out that while Stewart accuses Crossfire of showing issues in black and white, it's a debate show, hence it's supposed to be an argument. Stewart continues to lecture Carlson and Begala about their "responsibilities," while continuing to exempt himself from any because he has a "comedy show." Carlson mocks Stewart's preachy tone adeptly. Stewart, sensing how untenable his position is, and sensing that he is being made a fool of, calls Carlson a "dick." Mind you, this is after he contrasted The Daily Show favorably to Crossfire because of The Daily Show's "civil discourse." (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0410/15/cf.01.html).
And because Stewart called Carlson a "dick," he was deemed by pop-culture to have won the debate handily. A cursory glance at the transcript reveals Stewart to have been out-witted and out-classed by Mr. Carlson. But never-mind that. Pop culture has spoken.
I am reminded of this by Mr. Stewart's appearance on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. They engaged in an interesting dialogue about whether Jon Stewart was hiding behind the moniker "comedian" whenever he is criticized, while in fact his "comedy" has such a transparent political bent so as to overwhelm its function as humor. Stewart's response was almost Orwellian: "There is no question that I don't tell the whole story; but I don't not tell the whole story based on a partisan ideological agenda." Stewart suffers under the illusion, articulated in Bernie Goldberg's Bias, that he is not partisan, simply because the bias is so engrained in his worldview.
Wallace states the obvious: "I think your agenda is more out there, and that you're pushing more of an agenda than you pretend to."
Stewart responds, "but it's absurdity. It's about absurdity and corruption. That is the agenda that we push."
Stewart does utilize absurdity as a function of his satire; however, his satire always aims in a certain direction. Rush Limbaugh also utilizes satire (and did so long before Stewart entered the game). Can we then conclude that Mr. Limbaugh is not partisan, but rather a disinterested comedian? In terms of the function of both of their comedies, there is little difference. Both Limbaugh and Stewart satirize their political opponents, and both appear to be rooting for their team. It's just that Rush admits it.
The next question is, so what? Mr. Stewart is free to use comedy to advance his viewpoints as much as he would like. If millions of people find him entertaining and believe he is "speaking truth to power," what is the problem?
There are two problems:
1.) Stewart is a hypocrite; he throws stones from a very glass house. There is nothing morally superior about The Daily Show as compared to Crossfire, or any other show on Fox News which he deems unworthy and unethical. To compare these shows morally is to engulf into questions which are, as defined by Socrates, the very essence of politics itself: what is right and wrong? Because Stewart views the New York Times' liberal assumptions to be "right," there is no question of bias or immorality. Because Fox News is "wrong," they are illegitimate.
2.) The influence of Stewart's show is insidious because he presents himself as a neutral observer. His audience, while it may include many highly educated viewers, also includes many young people who don't generally follow politics. Their only information on issues of government comes from what is delivered on his show. In order for this segment of his audience to be "in" on the humor, they have to also be "in" on the accepted premise of his jokes: Republicans are the target. Such a straw-man approach creates a political discourse which is easy enough for even the most ignorant to participate.
The irony is that Mr. Carlson is a more balanced and disinterested commentator than both Jon Stewart, and those whom Stewart criticizes with such ferocity. Hence, Tucker Carlson for a time was able to maintain a show on MSNBC, ultimately leaving for Fox News where he serves as a contributor and founding the Daily Caller. In his MSNBC show he remained unpredictable and independent. It would be unfathomable to imagine Tucker currently holding a show on MSNBC, because the network has since been purified to only include those of the one true faith (Scarborough not withstanding). In this sense, Mr. Carlson represents an open-mindedness that is no longer viable for any network, whereas Stewart fits in well to the narrow ideological landscape which currently defines cable-news-style political discourse.
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