MEDIA LOG IN THE CROSSFIRE! I've never written anything for Media Log that has generated as many comments - okay, attacks - as my Saturday post on Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance. (The comments begin at the end of the item.) "Did you even watch the show?" asked one. A: Yes, and I read the transcript, too. "Man, Stewart does everything but build a 4-lane highway to his point and you still miss it," said another. About the kindest it got was this: "Dan, you're usually very insightful, but you missed the point here completely."
I haven't changed my mind, but I do have some additional thoughts that might help put this in perspective. I yield to no one in my admiration of Stewart and The Daily Show - something I made crystal clear on Saturday. But that doesn't mean I have to like what he did on Crossfire. To wit:
1. Stewart picked the wrong targets. By directly challenging Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, the hosts of a tired old show that no one watches, Stewart came off - as I said earlier - as something of a bully and a bore. That doesn't mean Stewart has to shut up unless he can wangle an invitation onto Meet the Press. (And wouldn't it be sweet to see him get in Tim Russert's face?) It does mean that Stewart would have been better served by criticizing the mainstream media in general, even to the point of asking Begala and Carlson whether they agreed with him, and to join with him. Not that they would have, but so what?
2. Stewart needs to be more self-aware. By offering serious media criticism, and then throwing up his hands and saying, in effect, "Hey, I'm just a comedian" every time Carlson took him on, Stewart came off as slippery and disingenuous. Sorry, Jon, but you can't interview Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, Bill O'Reilly, Bob Dole, etc., etc., and still say you're just a comedian. The Daily Show is a hybrid, and a brilliant one at that. Yes, it's funny, but it's also truer than most real news shows, which is one of the reasons that people watch it. Stop pretending otherwise.
3. Stewart endangered the franchise. By stepping out of character the way he did, Stewart runs the risk of being seen as less of an inspired subversive and more of an activist with an agenda he's trying to push. In another context, this would be known as being willing to spend one's political capital, and I suppose there's something admirable about it. But his single most important contribution to the culture (sorry for the pomposity, but I don't think I'm overstating it) is as host of The Daily Show. If he starts taking himself too seriously, then he's just another Bill Maher - not a bad thing, but a lot less unique. We can all see exactly what Stewart and company think of the mainstream media every night, and they make their point a lot more effectively than Stewart did last Friday.
4. Stewart became what he criticized. Everyone's favorite moment was when Stewart called Carlson "a dick." (For the record, I know Carlson a little, and he's not a dick, although I'll admit that he often plays one on television.) Quite a closing for someone who had just spent an entire interview lamenting the confrontational nature of political talk shows. Yes, I know, he was also criticizing how stupid and predictable they are. Well, calling someone "a dick" may not be predictable, but it's definitely stupid.
Over at Slate, Dana Stevens loved Stewart's outburst, calling it a "searing moment of lucidity." Well, I'll concede that it was that, too. Meanwhile, keep those e-mails coming.