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Stewart Follow-up

TheStar.com has a decent followup to Jon’s appearance on Crossfire. Here too is Stewart’s own followup on the Daily Show.

(the following is mostly from an email that I sent)

Crossfire is an interesting show to start a crusade on (if that’s indeed what he’s doing) because it’s probably more like what Jon would like to see than not. I mean, if you’re out to call someone a political hack on a debate show, you’d be far closer to the mark if you did so on something like Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (Hannity’s a douchebag and Colmes is a wuss). But on the other hand, if you’re going to go somewhere to call the media on it’s rather blatant mis-handling of important political news, you need to do it somewhere where people will not simply quickly go to commercials and escort you off stage as soon as they realize what you’re up to.

I don’t know much about Tucker Carlson—when I watched Crossfire, it was Novak that was the regular contributor, and he really is a douche-bag (hey, he published the whereabouts and identity of an undercover CIA operative: major doucheitude). But in terms larger than just Crossfire, I think he’s got a perfectly valid point about where media is going these days. I mean, when, for example, fact-checking the political debates, the media figures will research and find 3 problems with Kerry and 3 problems with Bush and call it “balanced”—when in fact, the three problems with Kerry are not knowing Pell grants, not knowing that Bush did meet with the Congressional Black Caucus once, and having left the word “projected” out of one of his sentences about the surplus in the budget in 2000, and the problems Bush had were lying about the recipients of his tax cuts, lying about his position on the man who attacked the United States (Osama), and taking credit for protecting Americans from contaminated vaccine when it was in fact the British who protected Americans. They’re NOT equal gaffes! And more than that, the media doesn’t even have reasoned discussions about the pros and cons of the actual policy suggestions. Instead they prefer to focus on the facial expressions (Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004) and similar ancillary crap (Mary Cheney, for example).

I think Jon’s point is that, regardless of how “balanced” Crossfire may seem to be, they aren’t actually providing much of a service to their viewers, they’re just providing entertainment. One side goes “rah! rah! you suck!” and the other side echoes it back—nobody’s mind is actually convinced or changed. At best, you’re simply aware of a headline you weren’t before—and if that’s all you want, you can watch Jon’s show to get the same thing. Jon gets away with simply listing headlines and making fun of them, because his show is on Comedy Central, whereas more mainstream news outlets, like CNN, have more of a responsibility to be actually useful. (It may be a fair argument to say that CNN’s responsibilities are to it’s investors, and it should show whatever to maximize their income, but let’s be honest: the porn industry pays better, and really maximising their income would result in something like Naked News. If they refuse to stoop that low, then they must have some other agenda than pure money.)

Politicians go on shows based on reputation, and what it will do for them. I think (and this is just my, very obviously whacked out, opinion) that if a show developed a reputation for scrupulous attention to detail, absolute honesty, and religious devotion to manners and aversion to personal attacks or other debate fallacies, then a politician’s willingness to go on such a show would be a benchmark of honesty and openness, and they’d do very well. And when they don’t have guests, they can reasonably discuss the issues amongst the regular contributors. This Week with David Brinkley, back in the early nineties was just that kind of show, I think (the show has since gone downhill)—but maybe I was just young and impressionable. Crossfire is an interesting case, because it was designed specifically for little more than one- or two-line zingers, shouting over each other, with no real mandatory fact-checking except what the hosts decide to do to call the other on it (so, only fact check it it’s really important to your argument that the other guy was fibbing). I really doubt that they could really change much, which is why I think (and hope) that Jon was simply using it as a platform to launch a more fundamental crusade for quality journalism.

It disturbs me that people no longer (can?) trust the media to actually do factual reporting. Everyone has a spin, a slant, whether they admit it or not and these days one has to either admit that you only want to hear one side, or you have to go out and seek a dozen or more sources in order to get anything even approximating a balanced view. That’s crap! I don’t want to have to do the research—that’s what the news agencies are for. Why on earth should I have to go to several different news agencies and read several different stories about the same event just to be sure that I know all of the major facets of that event? I mean, there ought to be some bigger distinction between Al Jazeera and Fox News or CNN than simply political leanings and budget size! And we’re sliding in that direction, sadly. And I can understand why we might be sliding in that particular sad direction—in my email conversations with people I disagree with, the conversation starts out reasoned, but by not carefully monitoring the contents of the conversation, over time it degenerates into name-calling and “well, you’re guy sucks even more” arguments instead of real substantive discussion. Quality political discussion is really hard, and factual reporting is even harder. Its success is largely based on reputation, which takes a long time to build (particularly in this day and age of widespread suspicion of talking heads).

While I don’t know what Crossfire can do about it—probably nothing in the short term—I think it’s a valid criticism of the media that many people are recognizing, and it should be addressed (we’ll need some real strong editors with thick skin, spine, balls of iron, and a herculean sense of journalistic ethics). I dearly hope that Jon is actually going to work for that goal, and that it wasn’t a one-off to get some laughs while being rude to another show.

My observation was that while I watched him say that I was thinking “oh my god, he’s saying what I’m sure everyone is thinking”. I mean, the audience was laughing their asses off, and they were there because they LIKE the show! Perhaps they recognized that they were attending more for the theatre of it than to actually hear something that might convince them to change their minds on some topic?


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