Saturday, October 23, 2004

"Tomorrow, I will go back to being funny, and your show will still blow."

I've been thinking more about Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance (video mirrors via Lessig and Lisa Rein), and his followup on The Daily Show.

It's telling that Tucker Carlson's main rejoinder is that Stewart didn't ask "pointed" questions when John Kerry appeared on The Daily Show. On its face, this seems a clear enough criticism, and even a fair one. But in order to understand Carlson fully, you have to examine his words closely in the wider context of Washington journalism. From the CNN transcript (emphases mine):

CARLSON: It's nice to get them to try and answer the question. And in order to do that, we try and ask them pointed questions. I want to contrast our questions with some questions you asked John Kerry recently.


CARLSON: Kerry won't come on this show. He will come on your show.


CARLSON: Let me suggest why he wants to come on your show.

STEWART: Well, we have civilized discourse.


CARLSON: Well, here's an example of the civilized discourse. Here are three of the questions you asked John Kerry.


CARLSON: You have a chance to interview the Democratic nominee. You asked him questions such as -- quote -- "How are you holding up? Is it hard not to take the attacks personally?"


CARLSON: "Have you ever flip-flopped?" et cetera, et cetera.


CARLSON: Didn't you feel like -- you got the chance to interview the guy. Why not ask him a real question, instead of just suck up to him?

Now, this exchange has a clear enough "secular" meaning --- i.e., the meaning it conveys to laypeople --- but I think it has an additional layer of "esoteric" meaning --- i.e., its meaning among people who, like Tucker Carlson, inhabit the peculiar world of Washington journalism. Admittedly, I'm not one of those people, but I read about it here and there, so bear with me as I speculate about it.

In this world, news organizations reward journalists for breaking "scoops" and "exclusives", which requires access to sources --- the more highly-placed the sources, the better. But, of course, all highly-placed sources have powerful incentives to influence news coverage, and so they use "access" as carrot and stick to reward complaisant journalists and punish independent ones. Journalists therefore engage in a perpetual and carefully calibrated balancing act, trying to please their editors without offending their sources.

Ideally, journalists would all be brilliant and hard-working enough to fight the pernicious enfeebling effects of the "access" trap. Ideally, journalists would respond to punitive access-denial by redoubling their efforts and digging deeper to find independent sources. Ideally, the press corps would show some solidarity by collectively blasting politicians for playing the access game in the first place, even though the game gives certain individual journalists a competitive advantage.

In practice, journalists are often dimwitted, lazy, and selfish, and hence they become captives of the game.1

Talk shows operate under similar incentive structures: your producer wants you to get high-profile guests, so you have an incentive to kiss ass. Meet the Press's Tim Russert was able to get Bush for a rare exclusive interview because Bush's handlers knew that Russert wasn't going to be confrontational or ask hard followup questions.

In this context, Carlson isn't merely accusing Stewart of asking Kerry lame questions. Look at the transcript: Carlson's accusing Stewart of playing this game, of asking lame questions in exchange for access to Kerry --- or, more precisely, of acting like a pushover for certain (liberal) guests because that will increase the likelihood of getting more guests like them.

And in making this accusation, Carlson makes a fundamental error, because The Daily Show isn't playing the access game at all. Under Jon Stewart's leadership, The Daily Show's mission has been simple and twofold:

  1. Be funny.
  2. Enlighten your viewers. (This clause is what separates TDS from the likes of Jay Leno, who is intermittently funny but whose jokes rarely reach beyond dragging out a dozen variations on the conventional wisdom's caricatures-of-the-hour.)

Neither of these goals requires high-level access or high-profile guests. The Daily Show operates outside the whole world of incentives familiar to Carlson's colleagues. Jon Stewart et al. can chug along merrily, season after season, simply by mocking the previous day's newspaper headlines and cable news clips. In fact, Stewart's sharpest barbs tend to lacerate the media rather than politicians. Gaining "access" simply doesn't constitute a significant part of The Daily Show's winning strategy. No doubt the show was happy to get John Kerry, Richard Clarke, and other high-profile guests, but the vast majority of the audience would watch even if the show never had such guests. Or, indeed, if the show never had guests at all --- the guest segment, which only occupies the last third of the show (after the second commercial break), is usually the least funny part.

And so The Daily Show operates in tremendous freedom, a freedom that they use to powerful effect. Carlson's criticism, by its esoteric meaning, is just plain wrong.2

Now, suppose we give Carlson the benefit of the doubt and consider the secular meaning. In this case Carlson isn't wholly wrong; he's just trivial. Sure, Stewart should have asked Kerry better questions. However, even if we grant this point, it's a pretty minor one, compared to the devastating hits Stewart lands on Carlson. First of all, I think Carlson misrepresents or misunderstands parts of the interview --- when Stewart asked Kerry, "Have you ever flip-flopped?", he was satirizing the silliness of letting an empty catch-phrase set the terms of political debate. In other words, he was making fun of people like Carlson. Second, as I've already said, the interview segment of The Daily Show has never been terribly important to its success. Finally, although Stewart's interview questions may not always be "tough", his interviews generally reflect a combination of respect, curiosity, and an earnest desire to get past shallow talking points. Given the comedy/talk-show format, and given that the interview only lasts about seven minutes, Stewart does a terrific job. "Toughness" is a phony measure of journalistic and comedic integrity. The true measure is whether the journalism and the comedy honor the truth.

Now, admittedly, Stewart's reply to Carlson --- that Crossfire shouldn't hold itself to the low, low standards of The Daily Show --- is a dodge (as my man AJ notes). Obviously, The Daily Show ought to bear some responsibility for its coverage, just as Crossfire does.

Stewart's reply should have been: "Maybe I wasn't as tough on Kerry as I could have been, but our comedy is fundamentally honest, whereas your debate show is fundamentally dishonest. When we make fun of something, we're very careful to do it in a way that respects the truth --- whereas when you criticize something, you're generally engaging in hackery. We're not hurting America. You are."

So why didn't Stewart come back with this statement? Probably some combination of modesty and a reluctance to admit publicly to taking himself seriously. It's popularly assumed that comedy is the antithesis of seriousness; at least, comedians and others often claim that comedy works best when it doesn't have an agenda and skewers everybody equally. But in fact, much of the greatest comedy (1) has a deadly serious agenda, beneath the laughter, and (2) advocates against the powerful and for the powerless. These are two facts that most comic writers, artists, and performers understand on a gut level. The alleged value-neutrality of comedy is a social fiction that serves the dual purpose of allowing its targets to save face ("Well, they really make fun of everybody, not just me.") and giving comedians plausible deniability in the face of power. Court jesters have always lived by the king's sufferance, and they require cover to do so.

So Stewart should be forgiven for employing this dodge. I'd argue that the substance of his criticism remains valid, and the substance of Carlson's criticism is (depending on your reading) either incorrect or inconsequential.

I do, on the other hand, agree with Nick Confessore, who writes in TAPPED:

As a side note, I do think Stewart misdirects his ire. Personally, I'm less concerned with vapid cable chat shows -- which very few people watch and not many people take seriously -- than I am with vapid print and network news coverage, which many more people see and take seriously.

My friends should find my agreement no surprise. I bitch on this blog fairly regularly on Sundays about something or other that I find in the Sunday Times. Stewart's right that bad cable chat shows hurt America. But bad news coverage hurts America more.

On the third hand, I think that people find Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance satisfying partly because they understand it as an attack on shallow hackery in general, and not merely the particular shallow hackery of debate shows like Crossfire. Stewart's been declaiming from his little alcove on Comedy Central for years. This appearance was, to some extent, a coming out: Jon Stewart, tossed among the lions, telling them off to their face.

1 In fairness to journalists: reporters work under tremendous deadline pressure; reporting without high-level access probably requires a lot more labor; and individual news organizations don't really have enough "boots on the ground" to counteract the superior firepower of a modern political spin operation. This is not to excuse the ridiculous reporting of people like Elisabeth Bumiller, but merely to acknowledge that reporters operate at a structural disadvantage.

2 And, as further evidence that Tucker Carlson really intends the esoteric meaning, observe the note of catty jealousy in Carlson's remark: "Kerry won't come on this show. He will come on your show." A similar note of jealousy appeared during Stewart's appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show, wherein O'Reilly said: "OK, when you get a guy like Kerry on... and again, he bypassed me, so I took it personally, he went over to talk to you..." In the universe of talking heads, landing a high-profile guest is a status symbol: it signifies your influence in the national dialogue, or at least your exalted place in the chattering classes' pecking order. Carlson and O'Reilly cover their jealousy with humor, but it's nevertheless recognizable. I submit that it simply doesn't occur to Carlson and O'Reilly that Stewart isn't playing the same game that they are --- that The Daily Show doesn't especially care about access, or star-guest one-upmanship.

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