In October of 2004, Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, to lecture the then bow-tied Tucker Carlson and co-host Paul Begala on how “awful” their show was. Stewart graciously informed the hosts that their show was chock-full of “partisan hackery” and “hurting America.” Carlson reasonably countered that Stewart’s show was also partisan—just one-sidedly so. Stewart, not even bothering to deny Carlson’s claim, sidestepped responsibility, stating simply that his show was on Comedy Central and that Crossfire was on CNN.
In 2019, however, there isn’t a single show on cable television where Republicans and Democrats routinely meet on equal terms.
That, apparently, was enough. Crossfire survived for only a few more months after hosting Stewart. On January 6, 2005, the then-new president of CNN, Jonathan Klein, announced that the network would cancel Crossfire and cut ties with Tucker Carlson, stating that he wanted to move CNN away from what he called “head-butting debate shows,” and be a network that reports the news rather than talks about the news.
Stewart’s appearance was the catalyst for Klein’s decision to cancel Crossfire. Klein said that he “agree[d] wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise” because “viewers are interested in information, not opinion.”
At the time, Stewart received plaudits for his polemic—and he still does. As recently as 2015, UpWorthy’s Adam Mordecai argued that “Jon Stewart’s best moment wasn’t on The Daily Show. It was the day he “eviscerated CNN.”
Looking back, however, Stewart missed something vitally important. In 2003, the idea of a show where Republicans and Democrats would meet and debate—on equal terms—felt mundane and taken for granted.
In 2019, however, there isn’t a single show on cable television where Republicans and Democrats routinely meet on equal terms. Sure, panel shows on CNN and MSNBC include a token Republican (usually of the never-Trump variety). In kind, panel shows on Fox News often feature a token Democrat. But that’s a cheap imitation, creating the illusion of bipartisanship and debate when the shows are quite obviously one-sided.
Ultimately, Jon Stewart was wrong. Crossfire was good, and networks should bring back evenly-matched, polemical debate back to primetime.
CONFLICT IS ATTENTION, AND ATTENTION IS KEY
During his appearance, Stewart implored the Crossfire hosts to “stop hurting America,” and called them “partisan hacks.” But what, exactly, was Jon Stewart’s proposed alternative—anodyne discussion panels where participants deliver competing, ten-minute presentations? That won’t get anyone’s attention. The way Stewart chose to structure his show, and the widespread attention it received is nothing if not proof of that. Despite all of this, Stewart’s denunciation possessed the right combination of rhetorical flair and appearance of authenticity to become influential.
Everyone is doing a version of Jon Stewart’s show—just without the jokes.
When Jon Stewart objected to Crossfire, he likely had in mind a model of debate that was more thoughtful, civil, and deep—and that if Crossfire went away, television shows might be able to return to this model.
That didn’t happen.
Conflict and controversy are what create attention and attract eyeballs—a prerequisite for any show on network television. The producers of network television shows do not have the option of boring their audience. Thoughtful, civil debate doesn’t generate the necessary conflict to maintain viewers’ attention, so any shows built around it won’t last. Neither does “reporting the news” attract the necessary eyeballs, absent a significant, captivating event.
It turns out that there are two basic ways to generate interest in your program: storytelling and brawling. You can host a bombastic debate, or you can use your program to tell a story showing how the host (and the viewer) are on the side of righteousness, working to defeat a malign adversary.
Crossfire was doing the former. It was bombastic and polemical—but it was at least a debate, where both sides were on even terms.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, humorous as it was, was doing the latter. Daily Show segments portrayed conservatives as stupid or malicious, and when Stewart interviewed Democrats, he would seldom challenge them.
By “destroying” Crossfire, Stewart unintentionally brought on an era of monologue-driven news shows that portray their adversary as stupid, incompetent, or both.
Everyone is doing a version of Jon Stewart’s show—just without the jokes.
STORYTELLING IS ISOLATING US
Think of Rachel Maddow—a very intelligent woman, who for years was lauded for running one of the most objective programs on television. In the era of Trump, she transformed into the premier proponent of the Russiagate conspiracy—the absurd notion that the President of the United States was in league with Russia.
Democrats and Republicans are coming to hate each other, afraid to even engage one another
Why? Ratings. Maddow told a good vs. evil story for two years, and her show became the highest-rated program on MSNBC. Sean Hannity has been using the good versus evil trope on his program for years; he’s the king of cable news. Hannity and Maddow’s shows are effectively two sides of the same coin, catering to the biases of their audiences and enrapturing them with good vs. evil narratives.
Is it any wonder we’re as divided as we are?
News filtering, what Rebecca Chalif calls “media fragmentation,” refers to “a situation where different individuals are consuming unique news packages.” In 2011, Chalif conducted a qualitative study looking at the viewership of MSNBC and Fox News, demonstrating how fragmented these audiences are—fractured along party affiliation and political ideology. “News, and both groups largely ignoring the opposing point of view,” Chalif concludes, describing the contemporary media moment as an “echo chamber” new environment in which Americans lack a common frame of reference on issues and move towards “fiercely partisan” political opinions.
The news media we consume is having serious effects on the political climate in America. Partisanship is at its highest in decades. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, “More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.” Democrats and Republicans are coming to hate each other, afraid to even engage one another—and this had everything to do with the fact that we’re simply not talking to each other.
Except, perhaps, on Twitter.
THE VIRTUE OF BRAWLING
Twitter has been called a “cesspool and an “aggregator of venom,” and criticized for “pornifying” politics. Someone like Brian Stelter might point and Twitter and call it crass, and believe his own program is somehow higher brow.
Twitter, for all its bombast, is a forum where public figures face both logical and social pressure to make good arguments. No one likes getting ratioed.
It’s not surprising that critiques like this come from pundits at established outlets; Twitter is, for its faults, a profoundly democratic—and meritocratic—medium.
When Stelter pulls a partisan stunt on his show, there’s no conservative interlocutor there to call him out and push back on his arguments. Stelter doesn’t bring on pro-Trump figures; he brings on fellow Democrats and journalists who agree with him.
Conversely, Twitter, for all its bombast, is a forum where public figures face both logical and social pressure to make good arguments. No one likes getting ratioed.
But our modern, good vs. evil cable news environment is fairly immune to these pressures. Rachel Maddow can put on cult-style mystery theater every night and get away with it.
Crossfire was different. As antagonistic as Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala could be with one another, they could never be completely awful to one another; if they did, their adversary was smart enough to take the high ground and punish their argument. Also, the regular panelists on Crossfire were co-workers—they had to see each other and argue with each other on a regular basis, so they weren’t going to be totally obnoxious, even if they knew they had to disagree strenuously.
This is the virtue of brawling, of polemical debate. The participants may not behave in a perfectly civil manner, but the presence of an adversary checks asinine arguments and stops people from demonizing each other.
Enough good vs. evil nonsense.
Let’s watch some brawls.