STEWART IN THE CROSSFIRE. Media Log has received several e-mails urging me to look at Jon Stewart's getting-more-famous-by-the-minute appearance on CNN's Crossfire yesterday, and asking me what I make of it. Frankly, not much. In taking down hosts Paul Begala and especially Tucker Carlson, Stewart offered some sharp criticism of the mainstream media and political discourse - criticisms with which I largely agree. But Stewart seems not to realize his own place in the modern media firmament.
Stewart's Daily Show does enormous numbers for cable; a recent appearance by Bill Clinton drew a reported 1.9 million viewers. The crew has a bestselling book, America (The Book). Stewart's on the cover of Rolling Stone. By contrast, Crossfire is a dying show based on a dying paradigm. (At least I'd like to think so, although Fox's detestable Hannity & Colmes would seem to suggest otherwise.) Moved out of its prime-time slot last year, Crossfire is now seen at 4:30 p.m. by an audience that is somewhere around 500,000 people - few of them in the prime youth demographic that watches Stewart.
Despite this power imbalance, Stewart's attitude during his Crossfire appearance was that he was the little guy, standing up for what is good and true against the big, bad mainstream media in the persons of Carlson and Begala. Look at what he said every time he was challenged:
If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you're more than welcome to....
You know, it's interesting to hear you talk about my responsibility.... I didn't realize that - and maybe this explains quite a bit ... is that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity....
You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.
Yes, Stewart made some serious points about the deleterious effect of shouting-head shows such as Crossfire. But every time Carlson tried to defend himself, he pulled his Hey-I'm-just-a-comedian shtick. The fact is, it's Jon Stewart who is the 500-pound gorilla. He's already won. Far from speaking truth to power, his appearance was akin to the victor coming in and shooting the wounded.
Look at this Annenberg Center survey on how knowledgeable Daily Show viewers are about politics. The Daily Show may be a comedy program, but it's more politically savvy than anything else on television, and Stewart's interviews with political figures are uncommonly insightful and civilized.
No doubt Stewart thought he was performing a public service yesterday. The truth is that he does that every Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m. Yesterday, he was just a bore and a bully.