Jon Stewart and The Media: Let's Not All Get Along

Jon Stewart's plot to "Restore Sanity" included a call for the death of the lefty vs. righty shoutfest on cable news. Some in the media felt he blamed the media too much. He didn't. He just blamed the wrong half.

Stewart's main media target at his (enormously successful and ridiculously crowded) rally last weekend were the shouting heads: Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, that Ed guy on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann. (It was clear his staff had taken pains to include roughly equal numbers of liberals and conservatives in the video montages). This is nothing new. The false Right vs. Left oppositional dynamic of cable news has been a favorite target of Stewart's since before he ripped Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala a new asshole, live on Crossfire.

He's right about this, as far as it goes. The cable news industry's tendency to package everything in a neat Left vs. Right oppositional dynamic does erode our nation's political dialogue. And alarmist TV news reporting on everything from local crime to product recalls does make old people unnecessarily afraid of the world.

But cheap media hype is nothing new. The real media dynamic that undermines American democracy is not ginned-up ideological confrontation; it's agreement. The mushy middle. The inherent tendency of the political media to choose its position by splitting the difference between the (perceived) positions of the Left and the Right. Mistaking conventional wisdom for actual wisdom.

The media does not have the power to convince liberals or conservatives that their position is incorrect. The media does have the power to do this: draw a box, and say, "This box represents the boundaries of acceptable opinions." The boundaries of this box are arrived at by sampling a small range of politically acceptable pundits—say, from Arianna Huffington to Charles Krauthammer—and declaring them to represent the absolute extremes of rationality. Any opinions that fall outside of this box are dismissed as lunacy, and may be freely ignored.

For a reporter, or a columnist, or an "analyst," it never pays to find yourself outside of this box. It does pay to place yourself in the very center of this box, with comfortable cushions on each side. No chance of falling out! The currency of political media is "credibility," as defined by other members of the media. To position oneself so that an equal number of talking heads are on your left and on your right on a given issue is taken as a sign of reason. To receive an equal amount of hate mail from Democrats and Republicans is taken as proof of impartiality. To decry "partisanship" is taken as a sign of level-headedness. To obsequiously compliment politicians and commentators with diametrically opposite viewpoints is taken as a sign of a nimble mind.

Members of the establishment media know each other. They're friends. They're neighbors. They go to the same parties. They date and sleep around with each other. They sit in green rooms together, making small talk as they wait to appear on each other's television shows. In this environment, sticking out just doesn't pay. Political disagreements must stay within acceptable bounds. It's not a question of ideology—it's a question of not wanting to be rude, to upset and offend and argue with these people who are your peers. It's just not worth it. It doesn't pay socially, or career-wise. The establishment Washington political media, taken as a group, will never allow itself to stray into free thought. It has no incentive to do so.

Fuck bipartisanship. Politics is about different ideas, and many of them are irreconcilable. You have to choose one or the other. Jon Stewart is right to call for civility, but he should recognize that the real enemy is agreement, rather than disagreement. Social niceties blunt honesty, which renders our public dialogue coded and often worthless. Democracy thrives on the thesis-antithesis-synthesis process of open and uninhibited discussion and, yes, argument. We do not need gratuitous argument, for the sake of attention-seeking; but we do need an atmosphere in which those with voices and a platform feel compelled to speak and think and analyze honestly, without giving a second thought to the favor economy. And we don't have that.

David Carr wrote today that Stewart spent too much time targeting the media, using it as a scapegoat while failing to discuss larger political issues. Since David Carr is the media writer for the New York Times, he will never, ever be able to get away with calling for more sympathy for the media, without taking a tremendous amount of shit for it. But at least he gave it a shot! Better to say what you think and wade through the hate afterwards than to sit in that green room before Howard Kurtz's CNN show with a shit-eating grin on your face, making small talk with some media asshole you can't stand, just trying to get along.