There were many frustrating things said by Jon Stewart during his interview with Rachel Maddow. And lots of smart things, too. But anyone who thought that his continuing problem of making false equivalences and missing the point in some of his critiques of media will sorely be disappointed. On the contrary, he seemed married to this ridiculous argument that the number one worst thing a media outlet could do is have “bias”. I felt Rachel didn’t challenge him enough on this, sadly, but conceded to a degree by analyzing the difference between having a point of view and being a partisan warrior. That’s an interesting discussion, but it somewhat glides across the most important issue, which is truth.
I was sort of surprised that Rachel didn’t immediately go after this bias hand-wringing with what I thought was an airtight point about how print journalism has always had its corners that were fiercely ideological, but not one whiff less prestigious for it. Would you really say that newspapers like The Guardian or magazines like The Nation aren’t highly respectable institutions where journalists are held to a high standard? Of course not. So why can’t cable news both have a point of view and be good at journalism? I would argue, which she comes close to saying but then glides by, that being upfront about your point of view is even better, because it allows the viewer to have even more information to assess what they’re hearing.
To hear Jon Stewart talk about it, the main problem with Fox News is that they’re conservative and that they’re passionate about it. This is not what’s wrong with Fox News. A conservative news outlet that still practiced real journalism wouldn’t be a problem like Fox is. The problem with Fox is that they promote misinformation at a breath-taking clip. Any given moment during the day, you can turn it on and whatever they’re saying is probably dishonest on some level, or even an open lie. They set out to confuse instead of enlighten. They want the average viewer to be more, not less, ignorant for watching them.
Say what you will about Keith Olbermann, who Stewart appears to think is on MSNBC 60% of the day. He’s a brash asshole. I don’t like him or his tone. But he’s not a liar. And other overtly liberal shows, or even politically moderate ones like Chris Matthews’ show, set out to make the viewer smarter and more knowledgeable. I was particularly annoyed at the little swipe Stewart took at Anderson Cooper on CNN for being unwilling at times to hide the fact that he’s “liberal”, or at least that he’s not going to play along with conservative lies. Cooper is one of the best journalists on TV, and I often find that I learn a lot watching his show. We need more journalists willing to ask hard questions. If Stewart really wants TV journalists and pundits to be anti-corruption, he should applaud Cooper for his occasional forays into brooking no bullshit, and demand more. It’s not Cooper’s fault that Republicans shovel out more bullshit.
That’s possibly what’s most upsetting to me about Stewart’s critique. It’s incoherent. He wants anti-corruption journalism, but when journalists actually do that, he gets antsy because it requires digging up information that will allow the audience to make judgment calls. He got openly upset when presented with the facts that Bush lied about WMDs in Iraq and promoted torture, because highlighting this information made Bush look like a bad man, even an evil man, and Stewart doesn’t like to say that. But if you actually set out to investigate corruption, the people orchestrating it—like Bush—are going to look like villains. You can’t have it both ways. Either journalism plays the watchdog, and some people come out stinking like shit, or journalism plays the role of horse race callers, which isn’t journalism at all. I’m not sure what Stewart is really asking for now, and I think the reason is that he’s not too sure himself.