Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Compared to Bill O'Reilly's sex scandal or Dan Rather's foolish decision to put his face on phony National Guard documents -- really, on 60 Minutes II of all places, couldn't they have put someone up there who didn't have credibility to lose? -- Jon Stewart's pants-ing of Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on "Crossfire" has gotten a fair amount of mainstream and cable media attention, but not much. Stewart appeared on "Crossfire" on Friday -- the Times just today weighed in and, like most pundits, spent more time circumlocuting Stewart's calling Carlson "a dick" than his exposure that "Crossfire" is, at best, offers a farcical, entertaining imitation of political debate. (Stewart's full retort to Carlson: "You're just as big of a dick on your show as you are on any show.")

Carlson was trying to take Stewart to task for lobbing softball questions at John Kerry when he was on "The Daily Show." But Stewart isn't that tough with anybody, nor can he be: how is he going to push Ed Koch on his endorsement of Bush on Monday and then have to talk to Marisa Tomei on Tuesday? Stewart's not Bill Maher: he isn't going to drag people who disagree with him on his show and try to get them in a corner so he can look good in front of his audience. It's a talk show, like "The Tonight Show" or "Oprah." And Kerry certainly did talk candidly about matters of much more political substance on "The Daily Show" than he did with Regis Philben or Dr. Phil.

Actually, it may be misleading to call "The Daily Show" a talk show. It's not really even political satire, in the way of its best predecessor, Michael Moore's "TV Nation" (from back when I liked Michael Moore). Stewart's "The Daily Show" is a satire on the media itself -- and always has been, since the days of Craig Kilborn's straight-faced imitations of handsome, hairdo talking heads. As cable news, network newsmagazines, and political operatives themselves have upped the level of media absurdity, to choose Stewart's term for it, "The Daily Show" has followed right along. Carlson and Begala asked Stewart if a Kerry or Bush win would give him better material, like he was a jokewriter for Jay Leno. Stewart flipped the tables on them -- it's shows like theirs, which purport to provide hard-hitting political analysis in a game show-derived format, that provide the best material. (Was it just me, or was the funniest/saddest moment on "Crossfire" when Carlson yelled, carnival-barker style "We'll be back with Jon Stewart -- in the RAPID-FIRE!!!")

Political news faces a problem. The vast-majority of under-60 voters don't believe in or trust the controlled, somber honesty of the network news anchor: Brokaw, Koppel, Jennings, and Rather are probably the last generation of this venerable type. Even many news-interested and news-savvy people don't like their news distilled into an hour or half-hour. If Yahoo! can give me the story before Tom Brokaw, I could care less. Hence 24-hour cable news, which has two imperatives: to fill the news day and make their programs as entertaining as daytime and primetime TV.

An easy way to fill both needs is to put political operatives or current/former politicians on the air, either as guests or as hosts of their own show. Producers rightly believe that people like Carson and Begala are in the know -- and since they specialize in prepping candidates for the media, they're made for TV. The problem, however, as Stewart revealed, is that people who are part of the political process have every interest in obfuscating the truth, because they want their candidates to win. Begala tried in vain to argue that this wasn't the case, but nobody believes this either. Most people, even media-savvy people, would rather follow the process as it happens -- how each party's guys tries to use these shows directly or indirectly to steer the populace one way or the other.

However, as Stewart rightly notes, by making the media just another extension of partisan strategies, journalists have effectively abdicated their role as truth-seekers, or at least, spin-filters. I don't believe that "The Daily Show" really seeks truth, but it may be the one show on television that manages to be simultaneously entertaining and through its satire of the media and those who would make the media their mistress, genuinely anti-spin.

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