Some of you might have shared my joy when The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart made short work of Libertarian, son-of-a-US-Ambassador, Rhode Island silver spooner Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, way back during the height of the Kerry v. Bush ’04 election cycle. Stewart basically said straight up that shows like Crossfire and hosts like Carlson were “hurting America”, that they were getting in the way of politics by perverting it instead of policing it. He said the hosts should stop allowing themselves to be used as so many strategic assets, taps that politicians could turn on and off to shape the message. It was merciless, warranted, entertaining, and bang on target…
Soon afterwards, CNN canceled the Crossfire show (to much rejoicing), and Tucker Carlson was sent packing. Funny how it took a comedian to do it (straight out of the Aristophenes playbook). Asked to comment on the decision by The New York Times, the president of CNN, Jonathan Klein, agreed with Stewart’s estimation, saying
Mr. Klein specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at “Crossfire” when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign. Mr. Stewart said that ranting partisan political shows on cable were “hurting America.”
Mr. Klein said last night, “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.”
Of course, you’d sort of have to be a moron not to, so no points to CNN on that score. In the four years since, Carlson has had his resurfacing moments (sans bowtie), all of it rightist blowhardiness. My personal favourite was when he had this to say about Canada:
“Anybody with any ambition at all, or intelligence, has left Canada and is now living in New York,” he has said. “Canada is a sweet country. It is like your retarded cousin you see at Thanksgiving and sort of pat him on the head. You know, he’s nice but you don’t take him seriously. That’s Canada.”[
But it wasn’t until yesterday that he really “popped up” to join the loudest chorus of a primetime meme, this time on The Daily Beast website with a weak-kneed attempt to belittle Jon Stewart for last week’s dismantling of another speed-freak greed-head, CNBC’s frenetic financial guru, Jim Cramer (CNN has the blow by blow tape here and you should watch it).
Here are the key paras from Carlson’s desperate Hail Mary from obscurity, referring to his own unfortunate run-in with the late night comedian to contextualize the drubbing of Cramer:
Unlike most guests after an uncomfortable show, Stewart didn’t flee once it was over, but lingered backstage to press his point. With the cameras off, he dropped the sarcasm and the nastiness, but not the intensity. I can still picture him standing outside the makeup room, gesticulating as the rest of us tried to figure out what he was talking about. It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen.
Finally, I had to leave to make a dinner. Stewart shook my hand with what seemed like friendly sincerity and continued to lecture our staff. An hour later, one of my producers called me, sounding desperate. Stewart was still there, and still talking.
No one this earnest can remain an effective satirist, and at times Stewart seems like less a comedian than a courtier to the establishment. In August 2004, a week before the Republican convention, Stewart got an interview with then-candidate John Kerry. At the time, reporters covering Kerry couldn’t get closer than the rope line, so the interview qualified as a booking coup.
Stewart squandered it embarrassingly. His first question (after, “How are you holding up?”) was: “Is it a difficult thing not to take it personally” when your opponents are mean?
“You know what it is, Jon?” Kerry replied. “It’s disappointing.”
Four years later, Stewart had become, if anything, even softer. Over the course of a reverential eight-and-a-half minute interview with Barack Obama six days before the election, Stewart failed to ask a single substantive question, much less venture into policy (though, as with Kerry, he did open with, “How are you holding up?”). Instead, like the cable-news morons that he often criticizes, Stewart stuck strictly to the horserace, at one point even resorting to a sports metaphor.
And he sucked up, hard. “So much of this has been about fear of you,” Stewart empathized. “Has any of this fear stuff stuck with the electorate?”
Facing puffballs like this, Obama coasted through with snippets from his stump speech. The result wasn’t simply uninformative, it was boring. Obama didn’t say a single interesting thing, and Stewart wasn’t funny.
If you didn’t actually see the show, you wouldn’t know any of this, since there is a virtual ban on critical stories about Jon Stewart in the press. Nobody in memory has received a longer free ride. (CNBC stands in such awe of Stewart, the network hasn’t even tried to defend itself, even against his claim that its programming might be criminal.)
The relationship between Stewart and the media is a marriage of the self-loathing and the self-loving: He insists their real news is fake, they insist his fake news is real. He doesn’t take them seriously at all. They take him way too seriously. But nobody takes anybody as seriously as Jon Stewart takes himself.
Basically, it’s an essay of half-assed and transparently self-serving bumfuzzlement, which leads nowhere save Carlson’s own ends. Nice try, haircut.
In the end, the fallout will be measured by ratings. Since the taking down of Cramer, the numbers for The Daily Show are up 20%. The numbers for Cramer’s show on CNBC are tanking, down 24%.
Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson is still Tucker Carlson…