October 27, 2004

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart: In the crossfire on media and politics

If you didn't watch CNN this past week or one of the clips making the rounds on the Internet, you missed The Daily Show host Jon Stewart deliver a damning critique on the media and how it covers politics. In a tense, heated exchange with co-hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, Stewart not-so-tactfully alleged that so-called "debate" programs such as Crossfire and Hardball are "hurting America" by limiting public discourse and playing directly into politicians' cynical media strategies.

For a "fake" newsman, Stewart's comments could not have been more authentic—or truthful.

As Stewart correctly pointed out, most American media outlets present two sterilized, predictable points of view to the exclusion of other, more nuanced ones. But it's not because most journalists rely on knee-jerk "left-right" schemas to tell their stories, or because the most frequent political "analysts" are former political staffers and not smooth-talking policy wonks.

The real dilemma isn't the declining condition of journalism either. The true culprit is the condition of the broadcast news market itself. In political broadcasts, powerful market forces dictate that every actor must advance his own career and interests. The conflict between profitable public debate and profitable television means the quality of discourse diminishes as politicians, political aides, journalists, and talk show hosts cave to self-interests.

Why would we expect otherwise? Take a look at who's giving the analysis and where their interests lie. The "analysts" who consumers watch are not Ph.D.s from prominent think tanks or academia. They are former politicians and political consultants whose livelihoods and fates are tied to the political parties whose views the networks pay them to represent. Most have preached the party line throughout their adult careers. And if they are still active consultants, they will make more money if their party wins. Why then should anyone expect them not to advance party dogma?

The reasons producers hire these folks as pundits is that, after months or years of carefully crafting and manufacturing a media personality as a campaign spokesperson or consultant, they are well-known "stars" of the campaign trail and a sure-fire audience draw. After Joe Trippi, Internet trailblazer for Howard Dean's campaign quit, MSNBC hired him as an analyst—less than two weeks after he left. What campaign professional doesn't fall asleep at night dreaming of Stephanopolous-like fame and fortune?

Politicians, though, are pulled in a different direction. Media appearances increase the potential for error, so politicians are naturally risk-averse. Few senators or governors want to be bathed in the heat of a camera lamp and pancake make-up, and be grilled in front of a live national audience if they can avoid it. The only thing politicians hate more than speaking in sound bites is having to deviate from their prepared remarks. Meaningful debate often comes from confrontation, but what talk show host wants to risk alienating his guests by coming off as too tough or intrusive?

The Tonight Show's Jay Leno, with his watered-down monologues and softball inquires into his guests' latest projects, follows this doctrine: Don't scare off your talent. No host or producer wants B-list talent on his show, so he structures his broadcasts to appeal to all participants. Familiar faces of Beltway insiders; predictable, poll-tested sound bites; a lack of punchy follow up questions; and a split-screen whose mere presence signals the exclusion of other viewpoints keep all interested parties satisfied and coming back for more.

Some might argue that public television shows like Charlie Rose and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer fill the void that bottom-line commercial broadcasts create. Yet few current politicians show up around Rose's table, and The NewsHour, for all its civility and substance, is more like a valium-induced version of its competitors than a true innovator. Part of the reason is that PBS's publicly-subsidized shows are not immune from the market either. They rely on corporate sponsors, who still favor putting their money on shows that won't cause too much of a stir.

Jon Stewart did cause a stir last week. Like the rest of the improvisational "correspondents" on his show, he showed up ready to deliver a message while appearing unscripted and unrehearsed. It's too bad that most real correspondents, too shackled and dependent on the status quo, can't be so candid.