Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart

Here is a fifty-minute conversation that I highly recommend. It was recorded and aired late last week. It begins as a follow-up discussion to some of the issues raised by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's late October rally in Washington, DC, and some of the criticism they received because of that. It then moves into a larger discussion of news media -- the cable teevee kind, mostly -- and what Stewart sees as its big problems.

I had many thoughts while watching this. Some of them appear below the fold.

I really do encourage you to watch this. This is not a schmoozefest. Maddow has a distinctly different point of view and doesn't hesitate to make it clear.

(alt. video link)

(h/t: Twin)

When Twin let me know about this conversation, he was kind enough also to point me to a place where I could find the whole thing in one piece, on Rumproast. I'm going to start by copying over what the always incisive Betty Cracker had to say:

So, Maddow and Stewart discuss the media.

I like Stewart—a lot. I think his heart is in the right place. But he gets the partisan vs. ideological thing exactly backwards when he claims Fox News isn’t partisan but rather ideological. A news network with a consistently applied conservative slant wouldn’t necessarily be an awful thing.

But a news network that is welded seamlessly to a political party is an explicitly partisan operation. Fox News works tirelessly to create an alternate reality, and they do it for a single purpose: to serve the Republican Party.

That’s a truly dangerous thing, because it doesn’t allow us to address real problems. It removes the possibility of a “consensus reality,” as co-blogger YAFB put it.


I'd add this to what Betty says.

Stewart by the end clings too stubbornly to a "both sides do it, both sides just the same" position. To oversimplify only a bit, he repeatedly equates what some random people on the left have done or say from time to time with what the median Republican officeholder or the median member of the conservative media does and says all day, every day.

I like Jon Stewart a lot, and I appreciate what I think are his core motivations, and I'll even grant him some more leeway still because any time you argue for a prolonged time, you tend to come off as more rigidly clinging to some points than maybe you really believe. But all that said, he still kind of bugs me with the attitude he displayed throughout. Yes, it would be great if all cable news wasn't a 24/7 hypefest of left/right squalling and fauxtrages. Yes, we all have our tribal instincts, and yes, we have to watch ourselves lest we judge everything on those term exclusively.


For example, because I don't think FDR was a horrible man and a horrible president, you can't write me off as Just The Same™ because I do think these things about George W. Bush. We (the sane among us, anyway) have long agreed that the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII was wrong. We (the courageous among us, anyway) say about that: never again. And then we talk about other aspects of FDR and what else he did while in office. I do not think FDR was an angel and Bush is a devil. But it is not just seeing things through a tribal lens to see these two differently, and to find one of them considerably more reprehensible when everything is taken into account. Including, among other things, the lessons that should have been learned from the mistakes made by the predecessor.

Again, I can write off some of Stewart's attitude here to for-the-sake-of-debate thinking. For something of use to come from a discussion, it can be helpful to exaggerate, to push on a notion, to be contrary, to challenge received wisdom. But I can't write off all of his attitude on the FDR/Bush thing, and I sure can't write it all off for the entire conversation.

To his larger views on the news media, or even more broadly, the discourse surrounding the news, here's a bigger complaint I had. Despite many places in that fifty-minute conversation where he could have, he never addressed these realities: that screaming right-wing media existed long before MSNBC, that they have for decades had enormous clout, that the left has nothing and has never had anything to match FoxNews or Rush Limbaugh either in clout or in blind allegiance to one political party, that for a quarter to a third of the country, FoxNews and conservative talk radio are about the only sources of information, and that no amount of polite murmuring or trying to Be Better Than Them has been successful in combating these problems. We have within that fraction a still-considerable mass of people who believe objectively untrue things (Obama was not born in America, global warming is a hoax, Soros funds everything, etc.), and who have a fundamentally warped perspective through which they evaluate the larger collection of issues for which there is some subjectivity (you can't trust anything reported by the NY Times, the DemocRat Party wants to make America socialist, the elitists are out to get us, etc.). No matter what your political leanings, you cannot say "the media is all liberally biased except Fox and Rush" and be thought of as anything but warped. But because you're allowed to think these things, and because your vote counts as much as mine, and more to the point regarding my irritation with Stewart, because your echo chamber sucks in other morons and thereby harms my country, I have come to the conclusion that PART of what has to be done is, yes Jon, fighting fire with fire. Or getting down in the gutter and fighting at their level. Or stop bringing milk and cookies to a gunfight. Pick your favorite metaphor. Because we didn't do it when Fr. Coughlin and Rush Limbaugh started on the radio. We didn't do it when the WSJ opinion section went off the deep end. We didn't do it when FoxNews went on the air. And now look at the mess we're in.

Stewart says at one point, "You can't fight the crazy." I'll grant it can't be eradicated, but it is a mistake to let it keep festering. And further, I don't actually believe most people who consume conservative media are crazy. I think they're largely decent people who are getting played by amoral reactionaries and the greedy rich, who are being led astray because these people know so well how to prey upon their fears.

All right, so this fighting is gonna be messy for a while. But the war was started long ago, by one side, and the choices are fight back or surrender. I'm not saying everyone has to be as shrill as I am. Of course there is plenty of room need for other approaches. And come to that, I never watch any cable teevee news (although every time I watch Rachel Maddow, I think I gotta change that), except for the occasional clip online, so of course I value things besides non-stop yelling and races to the bottom. But I am saying that for us all to go down the path Jon Stewart wants us to go down will not work, because the wingnuts will never go down that path. It will be unilateral surrender. And that will, quite literally, ruin America.

Now, of course, I've gone and done exactly what I said Stewart might have been doing in that conversation with Maddow: picking out the things that bothered me the most and going on at length about them. So I do want to say in closing that I largely buy Stewart's view of himself, and his role, as a satirist. I do buy some of his criticism of Teh Left, and of MSNBC in particular, or at least, I am not rejecting all of what he says out of hand. I do appreciate many of his frustrations and I share many of his core longings. And of course, I hugely value what he and Stephen Colbert do, night in and night out, both for sheer entertainment and for all the rest of the good that he tries to deny he's doing. So, thanks, Jon, for all you do, and for sharing your perspective. You are correct: you have earned the right to take off your comedian's hat and tell the crowd what you really believe. I hope you will keep doing that. But I do not agree with all of it.

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