Just Above Sunset
October 17, 2004 - Roles and Responsibilities

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Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, and I have traded many an email about what the press is supposed to do, and he used to get on my case about how much I cited Media Whores Online whose banner reads “The site that set out to bring the media to their knees, but found out they were alreasy there.”  They stopped publishing, but The Daily Howler has taken up the slack – and Bob Somerby, Harvard ’69 and formerly of Baltimore Sun is working the issues.  [In these pages see June 27, 2004: The news media wakes up and starts doing its job? and June 27, 2004 - What journalism is and what it is not. A dialog. – for some of the exchanges with Rick.]


I’m not sure Rick and I agreed much, but we had fun.


But this was an odd week.  Something happened.


As background, before I went back to work I did usually catch CNN’s Crossfire – an opinion show where someone from the left, usually Paul Begala, and someone from the right, usually Tucker Carlson, argued current issues.  And they usually brought in the big political names to defend themselves.


What happened?  This, Friday, October 15 -


Jon Stewart: Crossfire "hurting America"

Charles Taylor – SALON.COM


"I think you're a lot more fun on your show," said Tucker Carlson to "Crossfire" guest Jon Stewart this afternoon. "And I think you're as much of a dick on your show as on any other," Stewart shot back. It wasn't the faux avuncularity we've come to expect from Stewart on "The Daily Show" but there, of course, he's playing a role. Here he was himself -- and he wasn't buying any of it.


From the moment Stewart sat down he made no secret of how repugnant he found the show. In fact, he said to Carlson and co-host Paul Begala that he had been so hard on the show he felt it was his duty to come on and say to their faces what he has said to friends and in interviews. What he said was that their show was "hurting America," and he was being only slightly hyperbolic. Stewart told them that when America needed journalists to be journalists they had instead chosen to present theater.


Carlson, trying to affect an air of dry amusement that a comedian would presume to lecture him, important pundit that he is, but looking as if his bow-tie were about to start spinning, could barely contain his outrage. In an absolutely mind-boggling moment, Carlson tried to counter Stewart's criticism by pointing out that during John Kerry's recent appearance on "The Daily Show," Stewart asked the candidate softball questions. "If you want to measure yourself against a comedy show," Stewart said, "be my guest."


Paul Begala tried to put a more conciliatory face on things by pointing out that theirs was a "debate" show. Stewart was having none of it. "I would love to see a real debate show," he said. And went on to tell them that instead of holding politicians' feet to the fire by asking tough question, "you're part of their strategy. You're partisan -- what's the word? -- uh, hacks."


It's almost a cliché by now to talk about "The Daily Show" being more trusted than real newscasts, but Stewart showed why. He pointed out to Carlson that he had asked Kerry if he really were in Cambodia but "I don't care," and when Carlson asked him what he thought about the "Bill O'Reilly vibrator flap," Stewart said, "I don't." It was as concise a demonstration of the triviality of the media as you could hope for.


"I thought you were going to be funny," Carlson said toward the end of the interview. Stewart responded, "No, I'm not going to be your monkey." And that was what was so bracing.


Stewart's "Crossfire" appearance is going to generate talk about how prickly he was, how he wasn't "nice" like he is on "The Daily Show." But prickliness is just what was needed. If you've built your reputation as a satirist pointing out how the media falls down on the job, you're not going to make yourself a part of their charade.


I've heard people talk about "The Daily Show" as an oasis of sanity, a public service. I couldn't agree more. Stewart's appearance on "Crossfire" was another public service. He went on and acted as if the show's purpose really was to confront tough issues, instead of being the political equivalent of pro wrestling. Given a chance to say absolutely what he thought, Stewart took it. He accomplished what almost never happens on television anymore: He made the dots come alive.


Davis Cullen adds this - 


Something incredible just happened.


It ended with Jon Stewart calling Tucker Carlson a dick.


Begala and Carlson thought they were going to have a fun, bubbly lite show, featuring the clown from The Daily Show. Jon Stewart sat there and called them hacks to their faces, told them this kind of pathetic journalism is horrible for the country, and pleaded with them to stop.


At first they were incredulous, and thought he was joking. He wasn't, and did not let up.


"I watch your show every day. And it kills me. Oh, it's so painful to watch. Because we need what you do. This is such a great opportunity you have here--to actually get politicians off their marketing and strategy."


"Is this really Jon Stewart," Tucker asked.


"Yeah, it's someone who watches your show and cannot take it anymore. I just can't."


Begala was smart enough to just mostly just keep his mouth shut. Tucker Carlson got really bitchy, and made a complete fool of himself, by comparing their show relentlessly to The Daily Show, and saying Stewart panders too.


Jon kept laughing at him, at the idea of comparing a news show to the journalistic standards of a comedy show.


After a heated, double-incredulous exchange about this, Jon finally shouted, "You're on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is WRONG with you?"


Later, Jon got specific, and challenged them on one of my pet peeves.


Immediately after the debates, where do you guys go, he asked. 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?"


God, thank you Jon Stewart. That's my reaction every time. Why on earth would I want to watch a bunch of people lie, now? For either side? How pointless is that? Either figure out something else to do, or return us to regular programming.


If they had any journalistic integrity, they wouldn't be putting any of that shit on.


What was amazing about this whole thing was that he rips them up on his show all the time, but this time he went on their show, in front of their audience, and called them on what a disgrace they are.


Pretty potent. At least it felt that way watching. And so liberating, to hear a guest turn to them and say exactly what I had always fantasized about a guest saying to them.


Now here's the thing. I don't think Jon's intended audience was just Paul and Tucker. He was talking to all of us in this business. He's been talking about it for quite awhile now, but this was his boldest move yet.


Will the media ever pick up this topic and have a serious discussion and do anything? The hand-wringing I have heard from the media is typically 90% denial. We still don't get why most of the country despises us. What will it take? Will this make a ripple? Stay tuned.


Here's the official transcript from CNN.


Amazing.  What is the press supposed to do?  Get at the facts!


Ellen near Albany was enthusiastic -


This is just great! I love it!


What do YOU think about the "Bush is wired" story? [ see October 10, 2004 - George Bush's suits from Georges de Paris... And is told what to say by whom? for that ... ]  Why isn't it getting more serious attention? I read the BushIsWired site all the time, but mainstream treatment of this has faded away after Bush's campaign made fun of the charges.


Well, yes, the press is still trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do.  Is Bush unable to deal with the job and being prompted so he doesn’t say something really dumb or dangerous?  You might work on that.


Phillip in Atlanta -


After reading the transcript of the show I was screaming when Carlson accused him of sniffing Kerry's throne and Stewart admitted being so far up his ass the he was startled by what he ate two weeks ago.  Ha!  To me that's real comedy.  I don't watch Crossfire because the guys act like a couple of dicks, and I'm disturbed that a guy in his thirties will wear a bow tie voluntarily and can look at himself in the mirror and say, "Yeah, that looks good."  Surely he can't say it looks cool, because he wouldn't know cool if it bit him on the nuts.  Maybe I judge guys in bow ties too hard.  No, really I don't.  I wear one when I play weddings and I get an email that says "attire: black tie."  I'll do as I'm told as another aspect of discipline, like learning a melody of a sappy tune for a father/daughter dance.  Besides it's work clothes like putting on a jumpsuit to crawl up under a house.  Just work clothes.  But actually watching Crossfire as a matter of choice?  I might as well let a cat claw scratches in my consciousness.  Watch spud one contradict spud two with snappy sound bites?  Gawd, it must make Jon Stewart nauseous as a chore of job study.  But I do appreciate others doing sewer work for me, then alerting me to the load of shit floating up my shower drain.  So thanks, Alan.  Thanks for letting me know Jon Stewart called Carlson a dick to his face, and I read the whole transcript to find it in context.  It confirmed why I never watch the show, but at least Stewart stayed 'for real' and wasn't their monkey. 


Well, I keep my friends informed.  CNN and the rest have been cruising on bullshit when we need to know what happening.  The guy from the comedy news show says he is doing his job – and why don’t they do theirs?


Very nice.


Perhaps I will go back and read Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean - A Philosophy of Comedy - as I have copy somewhere here – Albert Cook, Harvard University Press, 1949.  Stewart has it right.


Two quotes from Robertson Davies in "Opera and Humour" -


No, the Golden Mean is not a sunny, untroubled nullity, but a deep awareness of possibilities, with one eye cocked toward Comedy and the other eye skewed toward Tragedy, and out of this feat of balanced observation emerges Humour, not as a foolish amusement or an escape from reality, but as a breadth of perception, and what Heracleitus called "an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre". A reconciliation of opposites, indeed.


The people who fear humour - and they are many - are suspicious of its power to present things in unexpected lights, to question received opinions and to suggest unforeseen possibilities.




Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Paris readers add nine hours....