Daniel W. Drezner

Did Jon Stewart hurt America? [UPDATED]

Did Jon Stewart hurt America? [UPDATED]

We’re coming up on the five-year anniversary of Jon Stewart’s verbal skewering of Crossfire in particular and the whole genre of left-right cable gabfests in general.  Stewart said these kind of shows were "hurting America" because of their general blather and failure to ask politicians good, sharp questions. 

Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire generated quite the navel-gazing among the commentariat, and played no small role in the eventual disappearance of Crossfire, The Capitol Gang, Hannity & Colmes, and shows of that ilk.  

So, five years later, I have a half-assed blog question to ask — did Jon Stewart hurt America by driving these shows off the air? 

If you’re expecting a lengthy defense of the Crossfire format right now, well, you’re going to be disappointed.  My point rather, is to question what replaced these kinds of shows on the cable newsverse.  Instead of Hannity & Colmes, you now have…. Hannity.  Is this really an improvement?   

As inane as the crosstalk shows might have been, one of their strengths was that they had people with different ideological and political perspectives talking to (and sometimes past) each other.  You could argue that the level of discourse was pretty simplistic and crude — but at least it was an attempt at cross-ideological debate.  People from different ideological stripes watched the same show and heard the same arguments.  Nowadays, if you’re looking for that kind of exchange, you either have to fast all week until the Sunday morning talk shows, or go visit bloggingheads

Instead of Crossfire-style shows on cable news, you now have content like Hannity, Glenn Beck, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, etc.  These programs have no cross-ideological debate.  Instead, you have hosts on both the left and the right outbidding each other to see who can be the most batsh**t insane ideologically pure.  These shows attract audiences sympathetic to the host’s political beliefs, and the content of these shows help viewers to fortify their own ideological bunkers to the point where no amount of truth is going to penetrate their worldviews.  Which allows these hosts to say any crazy thing that pops into their head and hear nothing but "Ditto!" after they say it. 

Again, you have to discount this as a half-assed blog observation, but it seems to me that shows like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann are now sucking up the available oxygen in the cable newsverse that programs like Capitol Gang use to breathe.  Is that really a good thing? 

So, five years later, I’d like to ask Mr. Stewart a question — was your rant good for America? 

UPDATE:  Two quick responses.  First, this commenter argues that the Glenn Becks of the world are far worse than the Keith Olbermanns of the world, and that this post has a "plague on both houses" quality to it. 

OK, let’s stipulate that the bulk of the output that I’m decrying in this post comes from the right rather than the left.  I’ll even further stipulate that Rachel Maddow represent the best of this kind of format.  So stipulated. 

Feel better now?  Does that stipulation in any way affect the argument I made above?  No, I didn’t think so. 

Second, James Joyner responds with this observation:

Contra-Tucker Carlson, I actually believe shows like Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” do a better job of illuminating issues than the screamfests did.  But that’s a rather low bar. 

Well…… maybe.  When Stewart is on his game, he is quite the interrogator.  But Carlson was correct about one point — politicians had a clear incentive to duck the screamfests in favor of "soft news" formats like the morning network shows, late-night talk shows, "fake news" shows like Stewart’s or SNL, or even Oprah.  How many politicians now choose to duck Stewart’s show entirely for even softer news outlets.  And, to repeat — what replaced the left-right screamfests?  Ideologically pure screamfests. 

Thanks, but no thanks.