"I think you're a lot more fun on your show," said Tucker Carlson to "Crossfire" guest Jon Stewart this afternoon. "And I think you're as much of a dick on your show as on any other," Stewart shot back. It wasn't the faux avuncularity we've come to expect from Stewart on "The Daily Show" but there, of course, he's playing a role. Here he was himself -- and he wasn't buying any of it.From the moment Stewart sat down he made no secret of how repugnant he found the show. In fact, he said to Carlson and co-host Paul Begala that he had been so hard on the show he felt it was his duty to come on and say to their faces what he has said to friends and in interviews. What he said was that their show was "hurting America," and he was being only slightly hyperbolic. Stewart told them that when America needed journalists to be journalists they had instead chosen to present theater.
Carlson, trying to affect an air of dry amusement that a comedian would presume to lecture him, important pundit that he is, but looking as if his bow-tie were about to start spinning, could barely contain his outrage. In an absolutely mind-boggling moment, Carlson tried to counter Stewart's criticism by pointing out that during John Kerry's recent appearance on "The Daily Show," Stewart asked the candidate softball questions. "If you want to measure yourself against a comedy show," Stewart said, "be my guest."Paul Begala tried to put a more conciliatory face on things by pointing out that theirs was a "debate" show. Stewart was having none of it. "I would love to see a real debate show," he said. And went on to tell them that instead of holding politicians' feet to the fire by asking tough question, "you're part of their strategy. You're partisan -- what's the word? -- uh, hacks."
It's almost a cliche by now to talk about "The Daily Show" being more trusted than real newscasts, but Stewart showed why. He pointed out to Carlson that he had asked Kerry if he really were in Cambodia but "I don't care," and when Carlson asked him what he thought about the "Bill O'Reilly vibrator flap," Stewart said, "I don't." It was as concise a demonstration of the triviality of the media as you could hope for. "I thought you were going to be funny," Carlson said toward the end of the interview. Stewart responded, "No, I'm not going to be your monkey." And that was what was so bracing.
Stewart's "Crossfire" appearance is going to generate talk about how prickly he was, how he wasn't "nice" like he is on "The Daily Show." But prickliness is just what was needed. If you've built your reputation as a satirist pointing out how the media falls down on the job, you're not going to make yourself a part of their charade. I've heard people talk about "The Daily Show" as an oasis of sanity, a public service. I couldn't agree more. Stewart's appearance on "Crossfire" was another public service. He went on and acted as if the show's purpose really was to confront tough issues, instead of being the political equivalent of pro wrestling. Given a chance to say absolutely what he thought, Stewart took it. He accomplished what almost never happens on television anymore: He made the dots come alive.
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Exchanging his usual goofy teasing for withering contempt, he told Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson that they were partisan hacks and that their pro-wrestling approach to political discourse was "hurting America." (He also used an epithet for the male reproductive organ to describe Mr. Carlson.) Real anger is as rare on television as real discussion. Presidential candidates no longer address each other directly in debates. Guests on the "Tonight" show or "Oprah" are scripted monologuists who pitch their latest projects and humor the host. It has been decades since talk-show guests conversed with one another, yet there was a time when famous people held long and at times legendarily hostile discussions (Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. on ABC in 1968, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1980).Nowadays, live television meltdowns seem to be pathological, not political - Janet Jackson baring a breast during the Super Bowl or Farrah Fawcett babbling incoherently to David Letterman.
Mr. Stewart's Howard Beal (of "Network") outburst stood out because he said what a lot of viewers feel helpless to correct: that news programs, particularly on cable, have become echo chambers for political attacks, amplifying the noise instead of parsing the misinformation. Whether the issue is Swift boat ads or Bill O'Reilly's sexual harassment suit, shows like "Crossfire" or "Hardball" provide gladiator-style infotainment as journalists clownishly seek to amuse or rile viewers, not inform them.
When Mr. Carlson took the offense, charging that Mr. Stewart had no right to complain since he had asked Senator John Kerry softball questions on "The Daily Show," Mr. Stewart looked genuinely appalled. "I didn't realize - and maybe this explains quite a bit - that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity." When Mr. Carlson continued to argue, Mr. Stewart shut him down hard. "You are on CNN," he said. "The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls."
All late-night talk-show hosts make jokes about politicians. What distinguishes Mr. Stewart from Jay Leno and David Letterman is that the Comedy Central star mocks the entire political process, boring in tightly on the lockstep thinking and complacency of the parties and the media as well as the candidates. More than other television analysts and commentators, he and his writers put a spotlight on the inanities and bland hypocrisies that go mostly unnoticed in the average news cycle.