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.
But what Rachel and many of us wanted to hear was some acknowledgement that, in fact, the fight isn’t really between two babies. The right in this country is acting more like an adult stealing candy from a baby. And the elected opposition is more like an adult who mumbles “Stop, thief!” once the crook is safely around the corner.
Because that’s how one-sided the political debate has become, how out of balance Fox’s propaganda and the elimination of restrictions on campaign finance have left our political culture.
And it’s inescapable that neither Stewart nor Maddow would be quite where they are today if Fox News didn’t exist. Stewart would never have been able to draw 300,000 people to the Mall in DC if his ongoing criticism of Fox hadn’t resonated with a disgusted public. (Stewart, of course, modeled his Rally to Restore Sanity on Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, and tens of thousands who attended the Stewart version considered it an anti-Beck, anti-Palin protest, no chaser. Not to mention that Stephen Colbert’s character was deliciously inspired by “Papa Bear” O’Reilly himself.) Nor would Maddow and Olbermann be so appreciated had Fox and the GOP not been so successful in chasing opinions like theirs out of the media at the beginning of the 21st century.
As much as Stewart insists that Fox and MSNBC (“in the aggregate” if not in the specifics) are alike, so he insists that what he and Maddow do are unalike. He’s comedy and she’s news, and therefore they’re not even in the “same game.” “You’re on the playing field and I’m in the stands yelling things,” he told her. Part of the distinction he makes comes, I think, from a real modesty, and from a respect for both comedy’s and journalism’s traditions.
But a lot of his fans think he is on the playing field; he’s their answer to Fox’s end-runs on reason, the cultural push-back to birther hysteria and Muslim witch-hunts and those “tribal” ululations at town hall meetings around the country. He may think he’s not a team player, but believe me, Fox knows he’s ain’t wearing their jersey.
Here’s Maddow/Stewart uncut: