The Role and Impact of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Taking Satire Seriously On A "Daily Show" Basis

By Matthew E. Popkin
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 5/12 |

Direct Media Critiques

As a satirical news program, The Daily Show has critiqued the various news networks for their shortcomings. Stewart, as an individual media critic, has also been highly critical of particular shows and networks. Stewart typically criticizes media and journalistic programs for either not living up to their networks’ claim or not fulfilling their roles in an effective and responsible manner. Straying from comedy, he has taken on CNN’s Crossfire, CNBC and Jim Cramer, Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, and other media figures. The first two will be the focus of this section.

CNN’s Crossfire

From 1982 to 2005, CNN’s debate program Crossfire traditionally featured political commentators from the left and from the right, where each side would discuss its opinion on the topic at hand. Hosts have included Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Paul Begala, James Carville, and Tucker Carlson. In 2004, Stewart was invited on Crossfire with the network expecting him to promote his new book, but instead he ended up expressing virtually unheard of criticism about the show itself to hosts Begala and Carlson.

Crossfire: Jon Stewart Interview37

Two main themes emerge from this interview. First, Stewart claims that the show and hosts are “hurting America” by not fulfilling their responsibility.38 Stewart affirms, “[the people] need your help… right now you are helping the politicians and the corporations… you’re partisan… hacks.”39 He additionally argues that the hosts are “doing theater, when [they] should be doing debate.”40 On that same note, although Begala asserts that Crossfire is a debate show, Stewart counters, contending that while the show may intend to be a debate show, it comes across more as basic partisan reactions that oversimplify the arguments. Moreover, Stewart expresses a strong desire for a substantive debate show, but, according to Stewart, Crossfire does not make the cut.

The second theme is Stewart’s assertion that it is ridiculous for a news program or serious talk show to compare itself and its standards to The Daily Show. Carlson repeatedly attempts to criticize Stewart’s recent interview with Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, only to be challenged by Stewart: “If you want to compare your show to a comedy show you are more than welcome to.”41 Many critics of Stewart and The Daily Show try to turn around Stewart’s attacks to target the comedy program instead. However, Stewart argues that The Daily Show never claims to be an actual debate show, news program, or tough interview program, and, thus, cannot be held to the same level of scrutiny as a show on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox. Stewart further adds, “you have a responsibility to the public discourse and you fail miserably,” driving home the fact that Crossfire does not accomplish its stated goal of being an informative debate show.42

Based on the initial questions that Carlson was able to ask Stewart, it seemed likely that the interview was going to be focused around the 2004 presidential elections. Stewart, however, acts as what Mirjam Gollmitzer would call an adversarial guest. In her paper "Towards a Media Incidents Theory: How "Adversarial Guests" Ruin Programs and Liberate the Audience," Gollmitzer argues that by shifting the discussion away from “the political deficiencies of Democrats and Republicans,” Stewart was able to “[turn] to issues directly [relating] to the media itself – to the particular channel, [program], or host.”43 Stewart, from the outset, came onto the program determined to rebuke Crossfire, always attempting to make his way back to his initial claims, despite Begala’s and Carlson’s persistent efforts to move away from the strong condemnation of the program. By vying for control and often interrupting the hosts, Stewart altered the attitude and direction of the program enough so that he could frame the discussion around the subject of his choice, which in this case was his belief that Crossfire was “hurting America.”

Regardless of whether or not Begala and Carlson agreed with Stewart, or whether one has seen much of Crossfire to determine if Stewart’s argument is sound, what is significant is that Crossfire was cancelled two months after Stewart’s appearance. Ross Douthat, of The New York Times, summarizes the network’s decision:

“As it turned out, CNN was paying attention… [T]he network’s president, Jon Klein, cited Stewart’s tirade as a tipping point. “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise,” Klein said. Henceforward, he announced, CNN would move away from “head-butting debate shows.” Let Fox and MSNBC have their “live guests” and “spirited debate.” CNN was going to report, not editorialize.”44

Stewart’s live remarks on Crossfire brought significant negative attention to the show, enough that the president of the network felt comfortable using Stewart’s appearance as one of the reasons the show was discontinued. Nancy Snow, of The Huffington Post, believes that “it was Stewart's appearance on CNN's Crossfire... that cemented his reputation as the only honest broker about what was happening to the real news.”45 Snow also compliments Stewart in stating that “[he] said what so many Americans were thinking but were in no position to say… It took America's most prominent shtick journalist to tell pseudo journalists to stop using false advertising labels about what it is they were doing.”46 And the “false advertising” is essential to Stewart. This criticism was recognized earlier in the paper with Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan and again here with Crossfire being considered a true debate show.

Beyond Stewart’s claims, though, is a larger point. Stewart is trying to hold the show accountable to the public. He specifically mentions that Carlson and Begala, and others like them, fit right into the “strategies” of the politicians and corporations. Although he has been critiquing the news networks on The Daily Show for some time, his direct live criticism of Crossfire on Crossfire strengthened his reputation as a media critic. His criticism even contributed to the cancellation of the program itself. Furthermore, Gollmitzer describes what might be the most valuable aspect of Stewart’s appearance:

“When suddenly being exposed to the messiness of an unarranged reality, without a clear-cut media-made frame for interpretation, the audiences of those media incidents felt the need to comment, debate and argue with others. Thereby, these audiences engaged in a broad public discourse about politically important issues such as the… quality of political talk shows. While doing that, they experienced themselves as an interpretive community – an experience that has become rare in the age of individualized media consumption.”47

By calling out and mocking the poor quality of discourse on Crossfire, Stewart not only affected the very existence of the program, but he also stimulated public discussion about the media’s role in the democratic process.

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