Real News

Jon Stewart

Bill O’Reilly: I’ve been on the show a couple of times. I mean, you obviously make fun of everybody. You know, I’m making fun of your show now. But you get everybody.
Jon Stewart: We are, in fact, crass and immature.
The Daily Show (7 October 2004)

I admire your stones for defending the indefensible.
— Tucker Carlson, Crossfire (15 October 2004)

The days around 15 October — that is, the Friday Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire — were all kinds of crazy. America’s most trusted name in fake news became news, fake or not, because he called Tucker Carlson a “dick.”

Stewart reportedly appeared on the CNN “talk news” show to promote the textbooky tome he co-authored with the Daily Show crew, America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. The book is not only at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but was banned by Wal-Mart. (How fortuitous is that coincidence?) Wal-Mart, for its part, claims reasons other than the book’s sheer snarkiness for canceling for the order. According to spokesperson Karen Burk, the company objects to the book’s inclusion of “nude pictures” (that is, paper dolls of the Supreme Court you can dress with robes).

Burk tells the Associated Press, “We were not aware of the image that was in the book, and we felt the majority of our customers would not be comfortable with it. We offer what we think our customers want to buy. That just makes good business sense.” It probably does, though guessing what customers might “want to buy” is neither easy nor rewarding. Consumers are nothing if not inconsistent, however predictable they might appear on their poll-able surfaces. And so, the decision to take America (The Book) off store shelves must have been a difficult one, and we might briefly commiserate with those who had to make it.

This, especially given the huge burst of publicity recently dumped on the planet’s most famous fake news anchor. Most of this circulates around his appearance last Friday on Crossfire, hosted that day by Carlson and Paul Begala. Carlson introduced the segment as “a break from campaign politics,” and the interview immediately devolved (or elevated, depending on your point of view) into a full-on confrontation. Stewart has, as he admitted right off, frequently complained about Crossfire while on the Daily Show, noting its blandly offensive format, whereby guests and hosts (including as well James Carville and the man Stewart has repeatedly deemed a “douche-bag,” for revealing the name of a CIA agent, Bob Novak) yell at each other (see also: Hardball, Hanity & Colmes, The O’Reilly Factor). “Why do you argue, the two of you?” Stewart lamented. “I hate to see it.”

In fact, Stewart continued, the very format of the show — arguing partisan positions as entertainment — is “hurting America,” reinforcing the worst possible patterns of interaction, where being the loudest is the most important aim in any “debate,” reason, persuasion, and exchange be damned. Though Carlson was visibly surprised by the attack, and tried mightily to steer the conversation back to “comedy,” Stewart stayed on target, using “comedy” to do so. “You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” he insisted, even as Carlson tried to put him on the defensive, comparing his own interviewing style on Crossfire to Stewart’s on The Daily Show.

But Carlson was in over his head. Accused by Stewart of “partisan hackery,” he came back with his own indictment: Stewart was “sniffing Kerry’s throne” during the candidate’s August appearance on The Daily Show. Given that taking sides is all the rage on cable news, and given that Stewart’s show is all about satirizing the fast-hardening conventions of cable news, the point was lost as soon as Carlson made it. First, Stewart said, CNN should not be taking format or strategy cues from Comedy Central, even as “what not to do,” and second, the media are The Daily Show‘s most frequent target.

Fake news, as Stewart points out again and again, takes liberties by virtue of its candidness about its artifice, its lack of “objective” fronting. It comports its analysis as jokes — one-liners, reaction shots, farcical performances of “senior correspondent” or “anchor” behavior, interviews that might seem serious but are wholly absurd — but this approach only confirm the show’s smart (and yes, smart-ass) insights, its seriousness, its ability to cut through.

As Stewart told 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft on 24 October 2004, “We don’t consider ourselves equal opportunity anythings, because that’s the beauty of fake news.” Indeed, the show religiously makes fun of network sloganeering, and doing so, wins loyal viewers who see through and feel betrayed by real news’ spurious claims to “truth.” Having access to power is no longer a sign of credibility, but a sign of being in bed with brokers. When Kroft asked Stewart Sunday night whether he’d like to interview President Bush, Stewart sighed. “Access doesn’t work out for us,” he told. “And, by the way, it’s not working out so well for you either.”

Young viewers who have come up with the idea that news anchors, reporters, and politicians are equally suspect (the scrupulous, intrepid investigators of All the President’s Men are ancient history for many of them, the movie version being released in 1976). They view the media, administration, and industry as one big fat complex. And why shouldn’t they? Media themselves are making splashy self-celebrating news and honorable-seeming mea culpas out of their own complicity in the “run up” to the U.S. war against Iraq. Which part of all this reporting and testimony — going on for months and years now — is the true part, which is objective or altruistic (even as these adjectives seem quaint now)? Which is self-serving? Which is real news and which is fake?

These consumers don’t believe that cable news networks are “fair and balanced” or “most trusted.” Such advertising is emblematic of the effect: news is by definition self-promotional, asserting authority based on market shares. The advertising story of The Daily Show is no different. Reportedly, the show attracts more 18- to 34-year-old viewers than network news, and the Crossfire appearance has been downloaded or streamed more than 1.5 million times, that is, more frequently than the show proper. The average ratings are up some 22% over last year, as more viewers (not stoned slackers, as O’Reilly suggested, but educated, frustrated young or perhaps young-thinking people) tune in for coverage that doesn’t just absorb deceitful, elusive, stump-talking inanity as “normal,” “tolerable,” or even “comprehensible.” At this point, you can watch a speech by Bush, Kerry, or Condoleezza Rice and guess which soundbite or supercilious pose will end up that night’s “moment of Zen.”

Some critics suggest that the Crossfire appearance undermined Stewart’s credibility as a good-natured, inoffensive comedian (the role Stewart resisted playing for Carlson, when he refused to “be [his] monkey”). Leslie Papp describes Stewart as “a serious-looking moralizer who chided the media and pleaded for elevated public discourse,” then notes his hypocrisy in ridiculing Carlson’s bowtie (“Jon Stewart should stick to comedy,” Toronto Star, 23 October 2004). The assumption here — that comedy is not “serious” — might need rethinking. Wonkette Ana Marie Cox takes another approach, linking popularity with power. She writes, “The Jon Stewart backlash should start right about now. Stewart has pretty much painted a target on his chest with his Crossfire appearance. To say his is just a comedy show is a cop-out in a way. He’s gotten so much power. So many people look to him that you can’t really be the kid in the back throwing spitballs.”

The power relations point is well taken: you can’t claim marginality when you’re a millionaire celebrity, winner of two Emmys and on the cover of Rolling Stone, all signs of deep-insider-ness. (This even if the numbers for Comedy Central are nowhere near those accumulated by mainstream venues; we’ll grant that the DS demographic is “desirable.”) And it’s arguable that Stewart’s popularity is a function of his fans’ desire to be entertained.

But another point is equally important. The popularity of Stewart, Maher, and Dave Chappelle also reflects consumers’ disappointment and outrage over so-called real news’ regularly dismal performance. Many Daily Show viewers do want real news, as opposed to the unreal patter, hysterical argument, tab-style trial updates, and stage-managed campaign and war coverage that’s on tv every day, hour after hour. Fake news is more real, not only in the familiar gambit of revealing apparatus and preemptively declaring itself fake, but also in its exposure of real news as fake. Alessandra Stanley reads the Crossfire appearance on its own terms, as comedy that’s serious. “There is nothing more painful than watching a comedian turn self-righteous,” she writes, “Unless of course, the comedian is lashing out at smug and self-serving television-news personalities” (“Jon Stewart was on target about CNN’s Crossfire,” New York Times, 22 October 2004).

Perhaps Stewart and the Daily Show faux journalists offer something more like a traditional Fourth Estate’s resistance to spin and message. Occasionally, they even push boundaries of what “news” might do, encourage consumers to be skeptical and pissed off. Becoming real news, as he did last week, he exposed its fakeness. Ironically, this is not news to Daily Show viewers. But it might prove useful information for real news watchers.