Jon Stewart isn’t out of the country for more than a few weeks and already CNN, the most Stewart-whipped cable news channel of them all, has decided to sneak its old Crossfire debate show back onto the air.
Back in 2004, Stewart seemed to single-handedly force the news channel to drop the classic left vs. right TV shouting match. Stewart famously told the two hosts, then the bow-tied young fuddy-duddy Tucker Carlson and Clinton loyalist Dem Paul Begala, that they were “partisan hacks” whose constant bickering was “hurting America.” He ended his appearance by pleading, “Please, please. Please stop.” Three months later CNN’s president at the time, Jonathan Klein, axed the show, saying, “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.”
But last week, with Stewart spending the summer in the Middle East filming a movie, CNN’s new president, Jeff Zucker, announced that CNN will resurrect Crossfire this fall. This time, conservatives Newt Gingrich and S.E. Cupp (who works for Glenn Beck and until last week served as the token Republican on MSNBC’s The Cycle) will take turns facing off against former top Obama aides Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones. Will these new odd couples have a mandate to argue better and louder than, say, Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker did on CNN’s last, failed foray into frisson across the aisle?
Maybe CNN has figured out that as a programming chief for cable news, Jon Stewart is a total flop. Urging CNN to hush Crossfire and instead be a dispassionate teller of news stories can make for deadly TV. And one thing Stewart always tells CNN (and anyone aspiring to be half as cool as he is) is that they should listen to him because he knows what makes good TV.
But as Ian Crouch points out in The New Yorker, Stewart is not exactly the cable news-slayer of legend. Crossfire’s slide in the ratings began long before Stewart’s appearance and not because of “the public’s impatience with the tenor of its debates,” as Crouch says, but because that tenor was replicated on media all around them, including on Fox News and the rising MSNBC—not to mention The Daily Show itself:
Stewart’s basic premise—can’t you guys just be nice?—exaggerated the appetite of a wide audience for somber policy discussion, and skips over the fact that so many people turned to Stewart’s own comedy show as their only daily news source because of its subversive, cutting, and often cruel analysis.
That cruel analysis included savage mocking of CNN host Rick Sanchez, to the point where the man lashed back at Stewart and lost his job.
Stewart gave definition to his media critique in 2010, just as the Tea Party was about to take the equivalent of parliamentary rump power, at his Rally to Restore Sanity on the Washington, DC, mall, held three days before the midterm elections. He stood on stage in front of more than 200,000 people and portrayed Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, and MSNBC to be as extreme as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Fox News. Pundits, he said, should be more like the drivers waiting at the crowded entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, who know that the only way to get through is to patiently take turns. “You go. Then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go,” Stewart said.
That sounds very civil. But it ignores the fact that one side of the political debate refuses to use the tunnel and just helicopters over it daily.
The basic frame Stewart puts on media politics tries to pretend that corporate journalism isn’t already advocacy journalism. He tries to split hairs about how this corporate journalist does a better job than that one, this one offers facts, that one lets himself be tasered on-air, this one wears an ascot, that one a bow-tie, etc. Some of these are worthy of ridicule, some aren’t. But a preoccupation with media style neatly takes the focus off of media ownership, where the real power resides.
The question of who pays to set the parameters of public debate has become a front-burner of an issue ever since government leak cases began bursting out this spring. Corporate journalists like David Gregory and Andrew Ross Sorkin have suggested that it might be legit to arrest advocacy journalist Glenn Greenwald for covering Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. (Sorkin later apologized.) Somehow arrests are never suggested for members of their own tribe. David Sirota:
Why hasn’t David Gregory asked reporters at the Washington Post, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News the same question, considering their publication of similar leaks? Is it because Greenwald is seen as representing a form of journalism too adversarial toward the government, while those establishment outlets are still held in Good Standing by Washington?
Anyway, journalism should not be about making nice sounds—any more than it should be about letting one sound drown out all other news for days on end. (We’re talking about you, wall-to-wall cable coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, MSNBC included.)
What it should be about is tough questions to people about their policy views. CNN had at least one show that fit the bill in Soledad O’Brien’s morning show. Stewart himself has praised her dogged interviews. But the Atlanta-based net recently replaced O’Brien with a happy-face show, New Day. O’Brien announced on Monday that she’s joining Al Jazeera America, a move that takes guts in the first place.
The new Crossfire won’t be a substitute for fearless reporting, of course, but a bunch of lefties and righties arguing, obnoxiously or not, really won’t hurt America. Certainly no more than corporate media calls to arrest one of their indie competitors. All we are saying is give argument a chance.