October 16, 2004

Take Two

I've watched the Jon Stewart on Crossfire video several times. Man it's hard to watch. What the hell was it like to sit up there during the commercial breaks, for crissakes?

It's to be expected, I guess, given that he showed up on live TV to shame the hosts about what they do for a living (and fair enough). But aside from the content, it's an odd performance as he's going out of his way to say things in a pained, I-hate-to-tell-you-this sort of way. In short, he's trying specifically to be unfunny.

This differs from when he went on O'Reilly, for example, where it was so chock-a-block with jokes you could keep a running tally. The indictment count was negligible.

But, as he points out at the beginning, Stewart's had a special hatred of CNN and Crossfire for quite a while. In an interview with Bill Moyers last year he said:

Crossfire or Hardball? Which is funnier? Which is more soul-crushing, do you mean? You know, the whole idea that political discourse has degenerated into shows that have to be entitled Crossfire and Hardball. And you know, 'I'm Gonna Beat Your Ass' or whatever they're calling them these days is mind-boggling.

Crossfire, especially, is completely an apropos name. It's what innocent bystanders are caught in when gangs are fighting.

The underlying argument is that CNN has a burden, not shared by Fox, to offer legitimate commentary on politics. Fox, as Stewart has said previously, has simply "taken the AM radio mentality and labeled it fair and balanced just to upset you guys."

The argument is that shows like Crossfire are inherently disingenous because the participants are partisan hacks reciting talking points rather than substantively debating the issues. And I completely believe that to be true.

Going back to the video, however, the weird thing is the way in which this all plays out. After laying out the above argument, Tucker Carlson seeks to debate Jon Stewart on the merits of their respective shows. The fact that he has a graphic prepared suggests he knew the argument was headed this way.

This is, obviously, boneheaded. Stewart's response that "You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls" is both consistent with his original argument about the responsiblity of legitimate news and it gets a laugh.

It is, in fact, a joke that Jon Stewart uses a lot. In other interviews, he goes out of his way to eschew journalistic responsibiltiy by pointing out the fakeness of the Daily Show (and frequently using the puppet line).

For example when Bill Moyers asked if he viewed himself as a media critic or a social critic, he said no to both:

I think of myself as a comedian who has the pleasure of writing jokes about things that I actually care about. And that's really it. You know, if I really wanted to enact social change… I have great respect for people who are in the front lines and the trenches of trying to enact social change. I am far lazier than that.

Here, I think, Jon Stewart is being a bit disingenuous. Certainly if you show up on cable TV to indict folks for how they do business, you're doing a bit more than throwing tomatoes from the back of the class.

Which goes to the overall impression I'm left with given the Crossfire appearance. It's either appropriate or ironic that this flawed debate show ends up producing a really awkward and poor debate on the topic of what a debate show should be. Tucker Carlson's too busy being a dick (and getting called on it) to be aware of the real issue and Paul Begala's doing his best to avoid being noticed.

There's a real argument to be had about the responsibility of all those involved in shaping public discourse. And I feel being on Comedy Central (or Fox) doesn't exempt you from that responsibility. Maybe Jon Stewart ends up proving his point by showing exactly how that debate's never gonna happen on a show like Crossfire. But, yeesh, it ain't pretty.

1 comment:

Mike Bostock said...

Thank you for writing this!

I adore Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, and relish the way he reveals the idiocies of our political system and the media. And unlike the South Park creators (whose comedy I also find hilarious), who seek only to humor and offend, Stewart seems to have hope that things could be improved.

Whether he cares to admit it or not, Stewart bears some responsibility with the influence he wields. Though it may only be a "fake" news show, many turn to it as a legitimate though entertaining source of news. It was the first thing I wanted to watch following the debates, for instance. The puppets line is therefore somewhat specious. Yet, Carlson's attempted indictment on "Crossfire" is a complete failure: though Stewart is often just being funny, it's just as often that there's something significant and insightful hidden in the humor.