Jon Stewart’s critique of “Crossfire” at GW is an important step in realizing how far the quality of broadcast news journalism has deteriorated.
GW students and parents were welcomed to Colonials Weekend by an October surprise of sorts. Replacing the usual partisan bickering on CNN’s “Crossfire” for the day, the program welcomed “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. Students and parents fortunate enough to have requested tickets for Friday’s show in advance expected lighthearted comedy and biting satire commonplace on Stewart’s program. Walking out of the Jack Morton Auditorium at the show’s conclusion, audience members recognized they witnessed something spectacular. Stewart offered a scathing critique of broadcast news media by appearing on the very show embodying everything wrong with it.
In a Sept. 16 staff editorial, this page argued that the quality of “Crossfire” had eroded to a level where the show represented little more than a circus, featuring yelling and a bevy of negative personal attacks. In the midst of a 20-minute long argument with host Tucker Carlson on the subject, Stewart encapsulated this sentiment and broadened it to an indictment on the overall quality of broadcast news journalism. “You’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate,” he said. “What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.”
Carlson then accused Stewart of hypocrisy by not practicing real journalism on “The Daily Show,” either, to which Stewart replied, “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”
Both the brilliance and subtlety of Stewart’s remarks are evident; the quality of broadcast news journalism in the age of Fox News is laughable at best and disgraceful at worst. With increased frequency, quality programs are forced to fold or adapt to an environment shaped by ideologues such as Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly on the right, and Al Franken and Michael Moore on the left. The end result of this migration is a series of programs committed more toward partisan bickering than quality journalism and debate, and a jaded public.
Such programming is a primary reason for, rather than a function of, the contentious political climate in America. News organizations seem to feel presenting both Republican and Democratic partisan talking points represents objectivity; it doesn’t. As Stewart pointed out, after this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates, news outlets took viewers to “Spin Alley,” where they were subjected to partisan banter – much of which was written before the debate even began. The broadcast news media should instead focus on providing viewers with an intelligent analysis of what transpired. There is little doubt such an approach would aid in civilizing the political discourse in America.
Jon Stewart himself is revered as almost a cult hero by a generation of young people dissatisfied with the absurd nature of media and politics in society. Stewart has the keen ability to channel frustrations and provide an avenue through which one is able to voice them. He takes what people are thinking, but not saying, and inserts it squarely in the public discourse. Stewart speaks to a generation of young people that came of age in a time of division and political hatred. For this, he deserves commendation.
It is this page’s sincere hope that Stewart’s controversial appearance on “Crossfire” serves as a point of reflection for the broadcast news community. The overall quality of much of the medium has declined to almost the point of irrelevancy. Programs such as “Crossfire” must be fundamentally changed if the networks hope to regain their public credibility.