Tuesday, October 19, 2004

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.


Anonymous said...

Don't agree with the point of this post in general, but just one small, specific criticism for now: He didn't technically call Carlson a dick, he claimed that Carlson "is as much of a dick on his own show as on any other." A technical distinction, maybe, but since you make the distinction yourself in your post ("he often plays [a dick] on television"), it seems apt.

FWIW, I thought the appearance on Crossfire was pretty good. What people do on those shows is act like dicks, and no one ever confronts them about it. They either try to argue in a civil manner, or respond by being a dick in response. Stewart confronted them about their poor behavior; good for him.

By "being a dick", I mean mainly that their method of "debate" is to simply change the subject or be dishonest about the subject. If someone says, "your candidate's policies will require a draft", you reply by either changing the subject ("how dare you denounce Dick Cheney's daughter?") or lie about it ("no, there will be no draft, the Pres said so"). Note that this is exactly what Carlson did throughout Stewart's appearance; Stewart tried to talk about the quality of the show, and Carlson changed the subject to Stewart's personality ("are you this combative at home? how come you're not funny?").

And meaning no offense or disrespect, Mr Kennedy, it doesn't matter much to me what a nice guy Tucker Carlson is when you're hanging out with him. The only way he affects my life--and, in whatever small way, my electoral process--is by the character he plays on TV, which is a dick. So he's a dick, as far as I'm concerned, and it would have been fine with me if Stewart *had* called him a dick. In fact, he only pointed out that Carlson consistently plays a dick on TV. As you noted.

Mike Molloy

ClickyClickyRock said...

I'll agree that Stewart is walking a fine line over whether his show is 'just a comedy show,' but I think that is statements on the show were consistent with his general views, so ultimately not that surprising.

Still though, I don't think that The Daily Show has the responsibility that CNN has. As such, Stewart is looking for the same thing that we all are from 'the news.' He was just in a position to call them out on it. I wish he had done it on O'Reilly too. It's pretty unlikely that he'll get on MTP now, but he wouldn't have anyway because, well, he's just a comedian.

The point you make about his more direct activism could make him less funny may be true, but therein lies the Daily Show's genius. If it wasn't funny, it would have as many viewers as Crossfire... Though hopefully those people would watch Bill Moyers or something instead.

I'd also like to add that it was probably fair game for Stewart to call Carlson a dick after Carlson called Stewart Kerry's 'buttboy.'

RS said...

I thought your critique of Stewart's Crossfire performance was spot-on. Indeed (and please forgive the self-promotion), I offered a similar analysis, with retrospective credit to you, at my brand-new blog:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance.

The reaction to this show has clearly become the story. Stewart hit a raw nerve with a lot of people who respect facts and journalistic integrity, and hate what these interview/wrestling shows have become. Aside from the buzz on your webpage and other blogs, this CNet story shows more about what is going on.


This appearance is becoming a phenomenon. More people have downloaded it than watched it in the first place on CNN. The story is not "how well did Jon Stewart do." It is "these shows are hurting America."

Anonymous said...

Jeez, Dan, your clarification was even muddier than your original post about Stewart. Picking on the wrong people? But he was *on* Crossfire, and even though you think the show is a has-been, Tucker is on so many places on television, he alone represents a target bigger than Crossfire -- and therefore worthy of taking down.

I find your reasoning during this election season increasingly odd.

Anonymous said...

The distinction for me between Jon Stewart, Concerned Citizen and Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show, is subtle but vital.

Stewart of TDS can mock both politics and media all he wants, but it has to be funny. It's a comedy show and a talk show. Even Lewis Black's frothing rants are funny; they have to be.

Stewart the CC isn't necessarily the same person as the scripted persona on the show owned by Viacom. The extent to which the show has been taking itself seriously as Stewart the CC is leaking into it has been making it funnier to me, but partisan in a way it never used to be, which is probably a weakness.

When Carlson tells Stewart the CC that since he has a show and is a CC, he's obliged to mix those two compnents of his life to have a moral right to talk about it. Yes, Stewart has politicians on his show. but until recently, he made fart jokes at them. It's not that he's just a comedian, but it *is* that TDS is just a comedy show. The fact that it's "truer than most real news shows" is *exactly why he's pissed off*. He's not being faux-naive, he's asking them to do their jobs so he doesn't have to. That's the difference, to me.

I agree with you that he endangered the franchise, though.


Anonymous said...

FWIW, and I'm sure it's not worth much, I believe you are completely off here.

Stewart has a personal point of view, and, yes, he is allowed to step outside of his role at TDS to air his view. The size of his audience doesn't matter, to his point, especially since he is ON a show like Crossfire, that encourages confrontation.

That said, the one part of what you say that I do agree with is, the problem is much bigger than Crossfire. (Now for the lecture). If I understand what Stewart is hoping for, it is a news show where the priorities are straight - and not flippant. Where policy matters more than posing, where issues of "content" matter more than issues of character.

But this doesn't sell, does it? And the entertainment value of what "sells", is what is turning, in Stewart's words, a "sporting event" into "wrestling".

Anonymous said...

I think you missed a significant point about Jon Stewart's "I'm just a comedian" and "My show is just a comedy show" lines, and that is that they were a response to Tucker Carlson's efforts to deflect Stewart's (valid) criticism of Crossfire. Carlson could not respond to Stewart's point that Crossifre and its ilk do a disservice to American public discourse, so he said, in effect, "Well, your show is just as bad as ours." But Crossfire is intended to be a debate show, is allegedly meant to contribute to public discourse about important issues. The Daily Show is intended to be a comedy show that pokes fun at the news and issues of the day. The shows serve different functions and should not be held to the same standards. Seems to me the "slippery and disingenuous" one in that exchange was Carlson, who was trying to dodge Stewart's comments.

Tom Beck said...

For me, the whole show came down to the moment when Carlson, rather pathetically I thought, begged Stewart to "be funny," and Stewart replied, "No. No, I won't be your monkey."

I won't be your monkey.

Right there, he summarized in one savage shot, everything that has been wrong with American political talk shows this year: they see themselves as entertainment, not enlightenment. They wanted Stewart to dance, and he told them to go fuck themselves.

That's the point, and if you missed it, well, that's part of the problem with the media as a whole. They think it's about them - the entire 2004 presidential race exists so they can intone about it - and then they get upset when anyone tries to make them realize that it's not about them.

Gygeek said...

"Stewart picked the wrong targets."

Seemed pretty clear to me he was talking about the media in general. He picks on Crossfire specifically because they do lame shows for ratings and entertainment rather than get serious debate going, but that's because he was on their show!

"Stewart needs to be more self-aware."

You miss his whole point. Jon has a choice, be funny and draw a huge audience, or get serious and alienate them. The problem is, they tout Crossfire as a 'serious' show, but lean toward entertainment. The Daily Show is supposed to be funny!! They do an admirable job, and if along the way the audience starts to think seriously about the issues raised on the show, I cannot for the life of me see how this is a bad thing. The benefits of his audience being more aware far outweight the consequences of failing to ask a 'tough' question of John Kerry.

Anonymous said...

"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." Would you say that this is true of Oprah? Jay Leno? They have political guests on all the time and NO ONE expects them to pitch questions the way that Tim Russert and Bob Schieffer do. Your opinion that The Daily Show is more than just comedy is just that - your opinion. It is comedy (having won an emmy for tv comedy) and your desire to make it something else is disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Dan, but you can't include Bill O'Reilly in a list with Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, , Bob Dole, as an example of someone deserving more than a comedian's take on news and expect to be taken seriously yourself.

Anonymous said...

Dan said "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."

Ehh? Why not? I think it's refreshing that he's not serious with these people.

Anonymous said...

with respect, you still don't get it

1) he didn't pick the wrong targets, they were thoroughly legitimate targets of opportunity - and given the hosts of Crossfire and their routine shtick, characterising anybody else as "a bully and a bore" has the intellectual credibility quotient of Lewis Carroll/George Orwell through-the-looking-glass self-contradiction

2) Leno and Letterman and Conan have hosted politician guests forever, and they're still considered to be comedians. And you don't insist THEY "need to be more self-aware."

3) Stewart only enhanced his cachet with his target demographic, so insisting that he "endangered the franchise" only betrays how seriously YOU don't get it. I suspect you're just upset that Stewart doesn't conform to your preconcived notion of how he should operate. Whatever the case, you're the one endangering your credibility, by pulling this nonsense out of your ... complete fantasy conjecture

4) irony is not dead! for it is your intended defense of Tucker Carlson, that "he often plays [a dick] on television" that is precisely the point that needed to be made, and Stewart made it. Just like Murrow did, allowing McCarthy's own words and behavior to discredit him. Now you too have emphasized the point. You agree with Stewart!


Anonymous said...

"October 24, 2004
If You Interview Kissinger, Are You Still a Comedian?

IS Jon Stewart being coy?

In a recent dust-up with Tucker Carlson on CNN's "Crossfire," Mr. Stewart defended a soft interview he conducted with John Kerry. He wasn't a commentator on CNN, like Mr. Carlson, he said, but a host on "The Daily Show," which is on Comedy Central.

"The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls," he said.

Whether he likes it or not, Mr. Stewart's mix of news and satire has become so successful that the comedian is suddenly being criticized for not questioning his guests with Tim Russert-like intensity. (It has been that kind of campaign.)"

The word "suddenly" points up the hypocrisy- I've always hated when shows suddenly changed their whole formats for a single show because the actors or writers or whatever have an attack of conscience or feel like making some statement. And where was their outrage before Jon attacked existing media?

It's like if I bought a box of cheerios and inside the box was oatmeal instead, put there because the makers decided for me that it was better for me. Thanks for caring, but give me what I bought/tuned in for.

And for that matter, what about the viewers with zero interest in politics for whom The Daily Show is their "gateway drug"? There are plenty of places they can choose to go to to get more serious analysis of things political, but if the Daily Show morphed into some more "serious" (whatever that means) version of itself, then doesn't that mean that its role as a bridge to more "serious" things is lost? What then would perform that function?

"Stewart needs to be more self-aware," wrote Dan Kennedy, a media critic at The Boston Phoenix, an alternative magazine, on his blog. "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."

Uh, yeah, actually, he can, retard. Let me say this s-l-o-w-l-y like Jon did on crossfire so you may be able to grasp it; if he were to suddenly decide to get all serious, he could well be in breach of his contract, and might even get his butt fired for not doing the job he was hired for, namely, that of making people laugh.

Maybe you as a member of the supposedly serious press should examine your own behavior. This whole thing seems to have touched a nerve in you...

"Each side is still uneasy with the other because they have a self image that is different from the reality," he said. "Tucker was complaining that Stewart wasn't being funny. He wasn't wanting commentary, he wanted entertainment. And Stewart wanted to take advantage of the show to make some serious statements."

Actually, I thought it was pretty funny. In fact, I thought it was friggin hilarious. And so did Crossfire's audience, apparently. I laughed good hard belly laughs, and I'll tell you, it made me feel really good that someone did what Jon Stewart did. Carlson was just pissed that the humor was at his expense.

Oh, and before I forget, I should point out that practically your whole article rests on a very shaky foundation; i.e., that the jackasses, whether they be called politician or media deserve to be taken seriously.

Are you under some delusion that if only Jon Stewart started holding politician's feet to the fire that he could single-handedly change the whole system?

I don't blame you for being upset over what you've suddenly seen under the rock that Jon Stewart turned over, namely that there are huge numbers of people in America who have the ability to think critically and who hold you and politicians in equal contempt.

The question is what will you do with that knowledge?

Attack Jon Stewart's character or look at whether what he's saying has validity?

We're watching, and so far you don't seem to be changing too many people's opinions... though you are making us laugh (albeit with dark, bitter humor).

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out what the stupidest thing Dan Kennedy said was-

I think it was the part where (paraphrased) he said that if a comedy show that gets too many viewers it should then turn into a serious news show.


Whatever you're smokin, I want some, cuz that makes zero sense.

Anonymous said...

1. Stewart picked the wrong targets.Whaddya mean? That show is the poster child for fake debate. They bring on two different guys with two completely fake set of messages that thay repeat ad nauseam. The issues change--this week we might be concerned about UN seals being broken and high explosives distributed around Iraq--but the words don't. This week we'll hear about how Bush is pursuing the war on terrorism unrelentingly. There are plenty of people who would talk about the issues, but they don't appear on the show. Russert doesn't purport to be a debate show.

2. Stewart needs to be more self-aware.He came across as incredibly self-aware. He knew what he was doing. He was stepping out of the format, doing the tv equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. He's only got this appearance because he's got this bestseller he's supposed to be promoting. He used it to make a serious point, a point that certainly rang true with the audience and the Crossfire viewership.

3. Stewart endangered the franchise. That's nonsense. He didn't take an "activist" stance. He simply said that shows like Crossfire provide an opportunity for real debate about real issues, but they are subordinated to fake messages spit out by dishonest hacks. Begala claims that these people believe what they say. Do you really think Terry McAuliffe or Ed Gillespie believe a word of what they peddle? They're too successful to be that stupid.

This is interesting wrt to Carlson, because he has made the same complaint. In his very funny book about the show, he makes it clear that producers discourage content for conflict. In an interview on PBS, he lamented the diminising quality of public debate.

4. Stewart became what he criticized. You miss the entire point. Stewart was not criticizing the show for being "confrontational." He was criticizing the show for pretending to be confrontational. Begala missed the point in the same way when he said, a couple of times, that Stewart started off by saying that they get on politicians when they say anything substantive, and that he therefore was objecting to confrontation.

That's not what was going on. He was making the absolutely indisputably true point that the show is designed to prevent any real debate on any issue, in the same way that professional wrestling is designed to prevent any actual competition.

Now it's true that this was a meta-discussion. One could subject Stewart to a similar meta-analysis. But if you did, you'd find that the gap between what Daily Show says it is, and what it actually is, is quite narrow.

Finally--he was very funny. He was funny at the Crossfire's expense, and so he wasn't making Tucker laugh. But the audience was laughing, and so was I.

Anonymous said...

"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."

YOU need to be more self-aware if you're taking all of these comments disagreeing with what you wrote as attacks.

I'm trying to think of a way to phrase this so you won't perceive it as an attack, but I'm running late for work-

If the majority of the comments disagree with what you wrote, isn't it possible you should consider what they're saying?

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Dan Kennedy said...

Someone - let's call him "Anonymous" - just posted the same comment four times. I've removed three of them. Let's hope he figures it out. Look, folks, when you post a comment, you get a message saying it might take a few moments to show up. So please, pay attention.