It was heady, it was thoughtful, it was nuanced out the wazoo—the Stewart/Maddow Comedy/Journalism Conference of 2010 was the opposite of everything that Jon Stewart objects to in our “24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-o-nator.” But much like his fellow believer in bipartisanship, Barack Obama, Stewart came away empty-handed this week from a high-stakes political summit.
Stewart had asked for the interview with Rachel Maddow in order to clear up the perception that his rally last month was whiffy and not about anything, as Bill Maher put it. Of course it was about something—it was about the corrosive effect of the hype, noise, and tone in political media today. Stewart has always had a tone jones: If a presentation is too loud (Olbermann), too goofy (Rick Sanchez), or too shrill (Code Pink, he says), it waves a red cape before his comedic bull. Last night he cited a clip he used to promote his rally of a woman shouting that Bush was a war criminal. “Technically he is,” Stewart said. Then why equate that charge with the far right’s contentions that Obama is Hitler, a socialist, and/or a Kenyan anti-colonist Muslim, none of which is technically, or otherwise, remotely true? “We were talking about tone there, not content necessarily,” Stewart told Maddow.
We were talking about standing up in the middle of a meeting and shouting that. My problem is it’s become tribal. And if you have 24-hour networks that focus, their job is to highlight the conflict between two sides where I don’t think that’s the main conflict in our society. That was the point of the rally, was to deflate that idea that that’s a real conflict, red/blue, Democrat/Republican. I think there’s a bigger difference between people who have kids and people who don’t have kids than red state/blue state.
That last point is particularly ridiculous, but Stewart’s broader argument, that too much screaming about “My side is better than your side!” is bad for our country, is well taken.
But it’s inadequate, and kind of lazy. This Crossfire–era criticism of cable punditry was apt back in 2004, when Stewart almost single-handedly got that CNN show canceled, but it’s way past its sell-by date today. That was two losing wars, a collapsed economy, and a Citizens United decision ago. The reason so many people are disappointed in Stewart’s rally is that after 12 years on the air, they had hoped he would have developed his argument further.
Stewart maintains that the two sides—whether you call them right and left, Tea Party and MoveOn, or Fox and MSNBC—are like squabbling babies. Now, squabbling babies are funny, and when Stewart shows us the supposed wise men of political journalism swatting one another with hollow rattles, it’s hilarious.