Journalistic StandardsThere is a clip currently circulating where John Stewart takes apart CNN’s “debate” program “crossfire.” Stewart in my view exposes the show as a sham on the air. The most amazing part is that the hosts help him do it.
Stewart leans left, as do I, but I don’t want this to be mistaken as a left or right issue. I think the most telling moment is when Tucker Carlson unwittingly exposes himself, but I don’t want to argue that Carlson is doing that because he’s a conservative. Left or right, the tenor of “news” in our society often degenerates to a series of sound bites and quoted accusations. Journalism is often taken to mean simply quoting both irresponsible allegations at once, or quoting both the accusation and the response. It matters little whether it’s a conservative or a liberal doing this on the air, it’s simply the modus operandi for tv journalism in general.
Crossfire itself is often little more than two or more people screaming at each other. They come into the show with their talking points pre-decided (and based on similarities one wonders if not pre-directed from the party machinery). They then repeat, over and over again their talking points at each other. Often they have guests who generally come on the show with their own talking points. They then scream their talking points at the guest, who angrily replies with their talking points. The point is we hear a lot of talking points, we hear them loudly, and we hear them often.
That is not a debate.
In order to debate one has to listen. One has to assimilate the opponent’s argument, and respond to it faithfully. One has to allow one’s opponent time and space to express themselves fully. One has to be respectful. In short, one has to be interested in advancing the argument, reaching agreement and finding the truth, not in repeating the same thing over and over again. Argument is the search for truth not victory.
So John Stewart comes on the show, and accuses them of being “part of their [the politicians] strategies.” He accuses them of just yelling at each other and doing harm to American democracy. And he does this in a calm voice with sympathy and humor. And what happens? Tucker Carlson proves him right:
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?
I’ll deal with the substance of Carlson’s attack in a moment, but let’s look at the strategy he is using for the moment. Rather than address Stewart’s point he simply counterattacks. That’s a microcosm of the entire problem of the show. Carlson could have asked him for more specifics on what he doesn’t like about the show. He could have tried to understand Stewart’s point and then respond to it. But Carlson is used to the sewer. He responds by flinging shit back at Stewart rather than by actually bothering to explore criticism of his own show; he yells rather than debates. This isn’t an isolated incident, it’s essentially what happens throughout the interview.
It’s true of course that Stewart’s questions were softballs. But let’s note two things about how Stewart normally interviews, only one of which Stewart himself brought up explicitly in his appearance. First Stewart’s show is a comedy show. It’s not intended to raise the level of public discourse, or serve the community by providing a valuable space for political commentary. It’s intended to make people laugh. Carlson ought to hold himself to a different standard.
But maybe Carlson is missing a deeper point. Stewart’s interviews are cordial. He sometimes asks difficult questions, though usually only a few and with plenty of jokes to warm up the interview. But he gives his guest adequate time to respond, without cutting them off by yelling or with counter attacks. This is important because it’s impossible to have a debate in 4 second sound bites. Stewart provides a forum for people to express themselves.
That Stewart manages to attack the show he is appearing on, while at the same time seeming like the nicer and more generous of the three is impressive. That a comedy host has outflanked what is supposed to be a real news program is not.