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Stewart on Maddow on Stewart on the News

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Last night, Rachel Maddow devoted her MSNBC program to an interview with Jon Stewart about the message of his Rally to Restore Sanity, and its critique of the news media, especially—this being a cable news show—cable news. (See the whole thing here.)

I don’t want to oversimplify the interview, which got into some interesting points about the gestalt that the 24-hour flow of a news channel creates. (Stewart’s metaphor was that whereas individual shows like Maddow’s are “the weather,” he and The Daily Show are concerned about “the climate”—i.e., the overall worldview that the totality of the programming conveys.) And I thought Maddow generally ran the interview like a conversation rather than a defensive interrogation.

But I have to say, I was disappointed that so much of Maddow’s questioning—like the earlier complaints from Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher—boiled down to: “But the other guys are worse, right? Say that they’re worse than we are.”

I know that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are pretty widely watched by people in my line of work, so I’ve been frankly flabbergasted that so many of the media people reacting to the rally seem somehow not to have noticed that they are, more than anything, media-criticism shows. What I shouldn’t have been surprised about is that people have focused less on Stewart’s critique of the news media than on demanding a precise apportionment of blame—preferably, of course, assigning a bigger share of it to their rivals.

It just all becomes like a Balkan war with people like this. Suggest that anyone on their own side might be guilty of overdoing things, and the first response is: But they started it! And they have more power! And they do it more! And whatever we did was justified retaliation for the massacre against our people by their side in the 13th century!

I’m not saying that people like Maher, or Olbermann, or Maddow, are wrong to say that their opponents are more uncivil than their side, or less justified in their incivility, or whatever. I am asking: why is that the most important issue? It seems to me simply a way to avoid responsibility—to say, We’ll disarm after they disarm first.  (The right, on the other hand, has a more uncomplicated way of dispensing with Stewart’s critique—it figures he plays for the other team and can be disregarded entirely, whereas there seems to be a feeling of betrayal on the left that he wouldn’t be more of a team player.)

Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t see an “equivalency” of any kind being drawn in the montage at the end of the rally. The statement I saw was that this kind of rhetorical excess is wrong, period, and that it comes from various sides—not that it comes equally from every side.

(Nor, by the way, do I think it was a critique only of cable news: Stewart and Colbert were critiquing a tendency in the media generally, for which, obviously, cable news clips make the most telegenic evidence for an event held on TV. Stewart does make an interesting point in the interview, though, about the difference between the Internet, where the audience seeks out the links it wants to follow, and a newscast, which is presented linearly.)

Why didn’t Stewart and Colbert make a point of saying who was worse? I don’t know, but I suspect—seeing this as a media critic—they knew well that once you bring that kind of scorekeeping into the discussion, that scorekeeping becomes the entire discussion. (I think it’s pretty plain that Stewart sees Fox as the prime mover in cable’s volume war, but I can also see why he talked in circles to avoid this becoming a bash-Fox session on MSNBC’s air.)  As it is, it’s been the main focus of the political media after the rally, and it makes sense: this side vs. that is the frame through which they see everything, and focusing on how the other guy is worse is the easiest way to avoid responsibility for your own actions.

Which means that the takeaway from an event like the rally is that people can agree that it’s a reasonable critique. Of that guy, over there.

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