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Jon Stewart on Crossfire

On October 15th The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire. (For those interested in watching the video you can find it here — the 56k and the 200k versions are both free and the have Real, Windows Media and Quicktime versions.) Rather than sit there and promote his new book, A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, Stewart decided to Crossfire’s Carlson and Begala how he really felt [via the CNN transcript of the show]:

STEWART: And I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: We have noticed.

STEWART: And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you that I don’t — it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.

Stewart took the chance on the show to tell Carlson and Begala that shows like theirs were the problem with American politics.

STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.

BEGALA: By beating up on them? You just said we’re too rough on them when they make mistakes.

STEWART: No, no, no, you’re not too rough on them. You’re part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks.

Stewart brings up a good point, if shows like Crossfire didn’t go into ‘Spin Alley’ after a debate, ‘Spin Alley’ wouldn’t exist. “STEWART: Yes. You go to spin alley, the place called spin alley. Now, don’t you think that, for people watching at home, that’s kind of a drag, that you’re literally walking to a place called deception lane?”

While Carlson brings up a fair point that Stewart did pitch Kerry some softballs in his interview, Stewarts comeback (or copout?) is that he is a comedy show, not a news show. I think the point here is that The Daily Show doesn’t pretend to be influential and meaningful, while Crossfire does. By claiming it’s a debate show it gains a certain amount of credibility and influence over people’s opinions. What it does with that credibility is what Stewart is indicting the show about.

STEWART: But the thing is that this — you’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great.

. . .

STEWART: You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.

Stewart doesn’t have this same responsibility; he after all (as he often notes) is on a show that follows a bunch of puppets making prank calls. However, Stewart takes his responsibility very seriously. Findings have shown that young Daily Show viewers are actually more politically informed than those who consume other media. This comes from a study by the National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES) which I wrote about for the October 5th edition of Demographics Alert in a story titled “Politics Served Fresh Daily.”

The Daily Show viewers did more than just score higher than other viewers of late-night television. According to the NAES survey, only people who consume four or more days of cable news scored as highly as late-night viewers who prefer Stewart’s Daily Show. In fact, those 18- to 29-year-olds who claimed to read newspapers four or more days a week scored two percentage points lower, with 46 percent correct. The six knowledge questions ranged from “Who favors allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market?” to “Who was a former prosecutor?” Daily Show viewers are clearly a well-informed bunch, not the ‘stoned slackers’ Bill O’Reilly recently called them during an interview with Jon Stewart on his Fox News Channel show The O’Reilly Factor.

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young who conducted the study did make this caveat: “That being said, the association we found between political knowledge and watching The Daily Show we can’t necessarily attribute it to ‘they watch the show, therefore they’re smart.’ There’s a very strong case to be made that they’re very politically knowledgeable coming into the show. You’d have to be to understand the parody and satire.” These young people are turning to The Daily Show because they’re increasingly fed up with what’s going on in the mainstream media. Stewart is right, shows like Crossfire are the problem. They claim to ask tough questions but then they allow politicians to slither their way around them and say whatever they want. Unfortunately, the mainstream media too often miss this point while they’re trying to get in the good graces of politicians so that they will make more appearances. They also seem to miss the point of Stewart’s show:

BEGALA: But who would you provide you better material, do you suppose?

STEWART: I don’t really know. That’s kind of not how we look at it. We look at, the absurdity of the system provides us the most material. And that is best served by sort of the theater of it all, you know, which, by the way, thank you both, because it’s been helpful.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: But, if Kerry gets elected, is it going to — you have said you’re voting for him. You obviously support him. It’s clear. Will it be harder for you to mock his administration if he becomes president?

STEWART: No. Why would it be harder?

CARLSON: Because you support…

(CROSSTALK)

STEWART: The only way it would be harder is if his administration is less absurd than this one. So, in that case, if it’s less absurd, then, yes, I think it would be harder.

But, I mean, it would be hard to top this group, quite frankly.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STEWART: In terms of absurdity and their world matching up to the one that — you know, it was interesting. President Bush was saying, John Kerry’s rhetoric doesn’t match his record.

But I’ve heard President Bush describe his record. His record doesn’t match his record.

Stewart is mocking a political system that deserves to be mocked. He is absolutely right and he is hoping that through laughter this country will begin to open its eyes to the serious problems it faces. I think Stewart has transcended his position as The Daily Show anchor and become a figure that we haven’t seen in a long time. I’m not quite sure what that figure is or how to describe him, but I am impressed with his honesty and forthrightness.

October 18, 2004