My husband texted me from the bus this morning to ask why I hadn't responded to Dan Drezner's excellent post about the impact that Jon Stewart has had on cable talk shows. I'm getting to it, dear pushy husband, who has figured out how to read my blog at the office again. Whew. My audience has returned.
Drezner reminds us of Jon Stewart's evisceration of Cross Fire five years ago, where he told Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala that their show was hurting America and ridiculed Carlson's bow tie. His criticism was spot on. Those phony debate shows were staged and did turn American politics into a WWF match. The two sides were cartoonish oafs who widened the gulf between Americans rather than looking for compromise or subtlety.
Stewart has become a serious media critic. He's also gone after Jim Cramer. His words have power; his criticism of Cross Fire led to the cancellation of the show. And now the only time we have to see Tucker Carlson is when he's doing a foxtrot on Dancing With the Stars.
Drezner argues that Stewart is responsible for the demise of the whole format of dueling pundits, and now we're left with a format of single pundits gushing on without the fake debate.
If you're expecting a lengthy defense of the Crossfire
format right now, well, you're going to be disappointed. My point
rather, is to question what replaced these kinds of shows on the cable
newsverse. Instead of Hannity & Colmes, you now have…. Hannity. Is this really an improvement?
inane as the crosstalk shows might have been, one of their strengths
was that they had people with different ideological and political
perspectives talking to (and sometimes past) each other. You could
argue that the level of discourse was pretty simplistic and crude —
but at least it was an attempt at cross-ideological debate. People
from different ideological stripes watched the same show and heard the
same arguments. Nowadays, if you're looking for that kind of exchange,
you either have to fast all week until the Sunday morning talk shows,
or go visit bloggingheads.
Instead of Crossfire-style shows on cable news, you now have content like Hannity, Glenn Beck, Countdown with Keith Olbermann,
etc. These programs have no cross-ideological debate. Instead, you
have hosts on both the left and the right outbidding each other to see
who can be the most batsh**t insane
ideologically pure. These shows attract audiences sympathetic to the
host's political beliefs, and the content of these shows help viewers
to fortify their own ideological bunkers to the point where no amount
of truth is going to penetrate their worldviews. Which allows these
hosts to say any crazy thing that pops into their head and hear nothing
but "Ditto!" after they say it.
So, five years later, I'd like to ask Mr. Stewart a question — was your rant good for America?
Peggy Noonan has a column up in the WSJ grumbling about the level of discourse in American media, but I'm going to keep the spotlight on Stewart right now. I want to answer Dan's question, "was Stewart's rant good for America?"
Sadly, I don't think his rant had any impact on America.
Hannity or Hannity and Colmes? Does it make a difference? No. More people are watching a dancing baby video on YouTube than tune in regularly to Hannity. These shows are watched by a very small section of America. David Brooks writes today these pundits have no impact on elections.
Also, those debate shows were never intended to find commonalities and convert people to your point of view. They were intended to solidify a base and turn the other side into two-dimensional baddies. Crap has replaced crap. What's better a chocolate filled Dunkin' Donut or a glazed Krispy Kreme?
There is some interesting scholarship on the Stewart effect on media. Because he is the primary news source for young people, people want to know about the Daily Show impact. Are people getting real political facts from Stewart? Does he whet the appetite to learn more about politics; is he a gateway drug to politics? So far, the studies seem to say that Stewart viewers aren't learning much from the show, but it may turn people onto politics. Some would like Stewart to do some real good for America and spend more time educating the masses who watch his show.
Let me just say that embedding Daily Show videos into your PowerPoint slides = great teaching evaluations. Not that I would pander in that way. OK, yes I would. If I was teaching this fall, I would certainly show this recent ridicule of CNN.