Serious As Crossfire


Unlike Jon Stewart, who says he watches Crossfire every night, I long ago gave up on the cable "debate" shows. So I did not catch Stewart's spat with Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson until Nick's comment about it directed me to the online footage. I agree Carlson did not come off well, but he was right that Stewart's criticism of Crossfire and its ilk seemed incoherent: On the one hand, they are overly contentious, partisan shouting matches that generate more heat than light; on the other hand, they fail to press their guests for answers to tough questions. It might be possible to reconcile this apparent contradiction--e.g., by arguing that all the shouting avoids the real issues--but Stewart made no attempt to do so, and I got the impression he hadn't given it much thought. Carlson was also right that Stewart shamelessly kissed John Kerry's ass when the senator appeared on The Daily Show, and Stewart's defense--that his is a just a comedy show--rang hollow; he routinely asks Republicans much tougher questions.

In fact, insisting on the distinction between a "serious" show like Crossfire and a just-for-laughs show like The Daily Show undermines the strongest part of Stewart's argument: that the "debate" shows are all about entertainment, professional wrestling with a political flavor. Personally, I don't enjoy them (I don't like pro wrestling either), but a lot of people do. The mistake, as with pro wrestling, is taking them seriously. By lecturing Carlson about how he has failed to serve the public interest, Stewart (whose show is still much more enjoyable than anything on the cable news channels) is making a similar mistake with himself.