Saturday, March 14, 2009

'The Daily Show' and Jon Stewart Need to Decide What to Do with Their Cake

I've gone back and forth all day on how I feel about the Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer interview on The Daily Show last night. I question the edits the show made in order to fit it on the air. They made Stewart look better and Cramer look worse. The unedited version is far better but also unbalanced in terms of focus, which does Stewart and The Daily Show no credit.

They seem to single out CNBC as if it exemplifies a unique failure of journalism, which is mistaken, especially given that they turn a blind eye to similar failures elsewhere. More critically, it seems as if Stewart wants to pop his head out to play pundit only long enough to voice an opinion before ducking behind the comedy show format to enable him to keep sniping at punditry itself.

Both attitudes are problematic. But before we get there, watch the unedited interview. Here it is, if you haven't seen it:

The big difference between the show version and the unedited version is that Cramer here seems much more deferential and sympathetic. Now, to be fair, he could be doing the daily stock trader's dance of picking things to say to make a minor profit — in this case, by looking decent on the show — and walking away with his winnings for another day. But that seems too reductive and cynical. The stock market isn't humanity. Cramer necessarily contradicts himself from day to day in response to market fluctuations and caprice. That doesn't make him a capricious or mercenary man in real life.

In spite of everything said about him, he comes off as a decent man. Perhaps part of some larger thing that is cruel, corporate and indifferent, but a nevertheless benign person who doesn't want for regret. And, in a way, this points up the mistake in targeting him. Stewart, to his credit, says that this really isn't about Cramer: it's about CNBC in particular and cheerleaders for major lending institutions in general. All the same, Cramer is where the show focused its ire earlier, picking on a dude who basically provides an entertainment coupled with remedial education. His show features toilet-flush sound effects, for Christ's sake. Going after him to address the problem with financial analysis would be like going after Colbert for superficial journalistic interviews.

The larger problem, though, is that Stewart and The Daily Show use CNBC and the financial crisis to flog the execration that is superficial, unquestioning journalism, when neither account for even a sizable minority of that journalistic problem. Yes, CNBC and its anchors and commentators have cozy relationships with various major financial institutions and major players in the finance world. Yes, they throw softballs at these companies and people. Yes, they unquestioningly cheerlead the frontrunning theory of the day. Yes, they fail to investigate sources, claims, trends, facts, etc. But this is an epidemic consuming all journalism.

Glenn Greenwald has an outstanding blog post today about this very phenomenon, and he partly rehabilitates Cramer by pointing up how he's either in universally similar company or perhaps even less culpable those he keeps company with. He writes:
[A]t least Cramer wants to appear to be contrite for the complicit role he played in disseminating incredibly destructive and false claims from the politically powerful. That stands in stark contrast to David Gregory, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, David Ignatius and most of their friends, who continue to be defiantly and pompously proud of the exact same role they play.
I can't recommend Greenwald's blog post enough, but what's interesting about it is what he omits: he mentions NBC's Brian Williams' risible claims to journalistic integrity without mentioning that both Stewart and The Daily Show consistently throw him softballs and have an almost saccharine relationship. (They have a similarly vacuous relationship with Gregory.)

To be sure, The Daily Show hammers away at sloppy and effete journalism as a rule, but Williams and a few others — usually big-three network anchors — almost always get a free pass. Williams spent about a dozen shows on a giant screen behind Stewart as "The Giant Head of Brian Williams," a he's-just-like-us gag that humanized him as a person and commodified him as a funny guy, when he merits serious criticism. Also, when he appears on the show, he:
• outright dodges some of Stewart's questions;
• says, "Hey now," sort of forcefully in response to some;
• adopts a faux-snippy-that-masks-real-snippy tone of voice in response to others;
• says, "I thought we weren't going to do that," whenever the topic gets near something he wants to avoid;
and just generally fucks around funnily and charmingly enough never to get called on it. The thing is, Stewart literally practices the same kind of insipid guest-coddling interview tactics with Williams that Williams practices with talking heads and that would earn a Daily Show skewering if it were done by virtually anyone on FOX News.

And that's fine enough in small doses. The Daily Show is welcome to its temporizing hypocrisy with the occasional guest or the occasional topic. But when it makes an effort with these mini-crusade episodes to advance a point about grievous systemic errors, its picking and choosing stands out. Greenwald notes that Williams, David Gregory and even the late Tim Russert poisoned the discourse on the invasion of Iraq via laziness and inaction and proffered crippling untruths to the American people, yet these guys get the kid gloves treatment from The Daily Show. And none of this would much matter if The Daily Show were never serious. But as time goes on, it seems as if Stewart and company are more determined to have their cake and eat it too.

Nearly five years ago when Stewart went on Crossfire to tell Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson that their show was hurting America, it was funny. It still is. Both of them challenged him and asked him how he was contributing to the discourse, and he ducked behind an admittedly hysterical response along the lines of, "Guys, the show that leads in to mine is puppets making crank calls." At the time, the defense was legitimate. Since then, however, The Daily Show has gotten delightfully more strident and activist and run more long-form eviscerations of general ideas/events, etc. It now also shares an hour bloc with a spinoff show that is just as political and ironically polemical. The defense doesn't hold as much water anymore, which is what made last night's interview difficult to watch.

Jim Cramer sat through thirty minutes of back-and-forth in what amounts to a pop-cultural kangaroo court. The Daily Show audience cheers after jokes but also after political or critical lines, often yelling and applauding over a guest's potential response time. They also jeer at the guest's replies when unsatisfactory. Stewart repeatedly switched gears on Cramer, hearing a response and then going to another prepared line of attack. There were three different points at which a more balanced and conciliatory exploration of Cramer's statements could have emerged, where Stewart instead went to the cue card to hit his marks, make his points and get his audience's reaction. And, after Cramer offered replies with which he disagreed, Stewart zinged him with partisan (or at least audience-favored) one-liners that dismissed Cramer's points, incited the audience and moved the debate away from mutual ground.

Replace "The Daily Show" and "Stewart" in the above paragraph with "The Factor" and "O'Reilly" and virtually any liberal would be enraged at the shabbiness of the guest's treatment and the programmatical nature of the exchange. Of course, there's no audience on The O'Reilly Factor, but naturally the partisan hooting and hollering on every expected talking point and laugh line would likewise be loathsome. Nonetheless, the determination to hit points, the pointed atmosphere, the gotcha-clip quasi-demonizing of the guest who was on his heels the entire interview — they're all pretty much the same tactics. The reason most people don't draw this comparison is because The O'Reilly Factor claims it's a serious political forum, and The Daily Show intends to be a comedy program.

Yet that key difference becomes progressively less distinct as the years pass. The Daily Show has no problem getting serious, and its writers and performers obviously relish the cultural accolades they receive for dealing with things soberly on occasion At some point, reality intrudes too much for "comedy" to be a dodge anymore. You can't hide behind being a comedy show when you do a full-episode interview on a network's coverage of the banking crisis. More importantly, when you conduct that interview, you have to do it with the good faith you castigate others for lacking. Just because Stewart is funnier or more sympathetic than O'Reilly doesn't excuse going for the laugh line at the expense of a broader discussion with the interviewee.

While those elements were present, the interview still managed to be civil and thoughtful, at least in part because Stewart reined in the jokes in favor of questions. But for the future, Stewart and The Daily Show need to come to grips with the fact that they can't continue to have their cake both ways. The comedy dodge doesn't work anymore. If they want to have a serious discussion about something, they need to silence the audience — which at this point is as mindless as anything in pro wrestling or daytime TV — and suppress some of the comedy. Because comedy, especially in quippy reactive form, is too often reductive and too often at the interlocutor's expense. If The Daily Show's contributors want to enjoy being taken seriously on occasion, they need to commit to taking their guests just as seriously, and that includes their guests' responses, the chance of going off-script and finding something new, unplanned-for and perhaps pretty wonderful. The only other option is going back exclusively to comedy.

More importantly, however, if The Daily Show ventures down this path, its staff has to abandon the idea that it can have it both ways with their targets and their guests. They should, by all means, continue to be civil in person and offer the subjects of previous critique the chance to respond reasonably, but the line between targets and friends of the show needs to be erased. Having Jim Cramer on and taking him seriously as an exemplar of a failure of journalism is fine. It's doubly fine if his responses aren't drowned by zingers and audience hooting. It's inexcusable when he gets called on the carpet while Brian Williams and David Gregory can make an appearance at any time and be allowed to joke around idiotically.

If Cramer's sins journalistically are ones of commission and omission, if he robs the public of knowledge because he sycophantically regurgitates the pronouncements of his guests and fails to vet their statements or their facts, then Williams and Gregory are far worse in both respects. And if Stewart and The Daily Show pretend to seriousness and fail to call either of them on the carpet, they perform a disservice as egregious as Cramer's, Gregory's and Williams'. Only it's worse because they'll wink at the audience while doing it. And, if they've shown us anything else, it's that they should know better.