In a mostly serious and civil interview, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart appeared on MSNBC Thursday to temporarily become part of the cable news “24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictonator.”
Stewart explained that he agreed to the interview in an effort to clear up misperceptions about his “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” But it was also clear that he was there to speak about how cable news shuts down debate in the country.
Following the rally, HBO’s Bill Maher complained that the rally had made it seem like the left was as much to blame as the right for the level of discourse in the country.
“The message of the rally, as I heard it, was that if the media stopped giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity,” Maher explained the next weekend.
“When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the Right who believe Obama’s a Socialist and people on the Left who believe 9/11’s an inside job, but I can’t name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11’s an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama’s a Socialist? All of them,” Maher said.
“That’s a paraphrase of what we said,” Stewart told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “Again, that’s probably inartfulness. We didn’t say that 9/11 was an inside job.”
“It was more about [people on the left saying] 9/11 was a chance for Halliburton to get their hands on oil contracts. Again, I take [Maher’s] point. It’s a fair point.”
“[Our] intention is to say that we’ve all bought into that the conflict in this country is left and right. Liberal/conservative. Red/blue. And all the news networks have bought into it,” he continued.
“CNN sort of started it. They had this idea that, you know, the fight in Washington is Republicans and Democrats. So why don’t we isolate that and we’ll stand back here and Democrats and Republicans will go at it. Red and blue staters will go at it. What it does is amplifies a division that I actually don’t think is the right fight,” Stewart said.
“What I do believe is both sides have their way of shutting down debate and the news networks have allowed these two sides to become the fight in the country. And I think the fight in the country is corruption vs. not corruption. Extremists vs. regular [people].”
Maddow pressed Stewart to explain how MSNBC was as responsible as Fox News for stifling debate in the country.
“But what is the lefty way of shutting down [debate],” Maddow asked.
“You’ve said, ‘Bush is war criminal.’ Now that may be technically true. In my world ‘war criminal’ is Pol Pot or the Nuremberg trials,” Stewart replied.
“I think that’s such an incendiary charge that when you put it into a conversation: ‘Well technically he is.’ Well that may be right but it feels like a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter.”
“My problem is it’s become tribal and if you have 24-hour news networks that focus — their job is to highlight the conflict between two sides where I don’t think that’s the main conflict in our society. That was the point of the rally, was to deflate that idea… I feel like there’s a bigger difference between people with kids and people that don’t have kids than red state/blue state,” he said.
Maddow argued that the actions of groups like Code Pink were small in comparison to the interruptions at town halls during the health care debate last summer.
Politico noted that Stewart pushed back on the charge that he made a false equivalence between MSNBC and Fox News at the rally.
“I want to make perfectly clear, because I think if the argument is you do exactly what Fox do and you’re as bad as Fox, anybody who has watched our show in any measure would understand the special place in our hearts for Fox,” Stewart said.
“I think the brilliance of Fox News [is that] they delegitimized the idea of editorial authority while exercising incredible editorial authority,” he continued. “It’s amazing. And they also have the game that they’re all out to get us. Any criticism of them can be filtered through the idea that it’s persecution.”
Stewart told Maddow that the problem was with the overall design of all of cable news.
“The problem with the 24-hour news cycle is it’s built for a particular thing: 9/11. Other than that, there isn’t 24 hours of stuff to talk about in the same way. How do you keep people watching it? O.J.’s not going to kill someone every day. That’s gone. What do you have to do? You have to elevate the passion of everything else that happens that might be even somewhat mundane and elevate it to the extent that it is breaking news.”
But “I like you,” Stewart admitted to Maddow as the interview ended.
This video is from MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast Nov. 11, 2020.