Stewart versus Crossfire: A historic encounter

“As our loyal viewers know, of course, our show is all about left versus right, black versus white, paper vs. plastic, Red Sox against the Yankees.” So begins an episode of Crossfire, a political debate show that ran on CNN from 1982 to 2005. The show featured two pundits from either side of the political spectrum, who would discuss current events, present and challenge each other’s opinions and interview guests in rapid-fire manner with hard-hitting questions.
During an episode on Oct. 15, 2004, however, things took a slightly unexpected turn. The guest that night was Jon Stewart, comedian and then-host of The Daily Show. The Crossfire hosts explained he was there to promote his latest book. Stewart, however, had other motives.

“I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad,” Stewart began. “I felt that wasn’t fair, and I should come here and tell you that … it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.”

Stewart launched into a scathing, on-air diatribe against the show, the network and media as a whole for neglecting their “responsibility to public discourse.” He accused them of “partisan hackery” and “theater.” He criticized their methods, mocked their presentation and questioned their integrity. At one point, Stewart literally clasped his hands in mock desperation, begging them to stop what they were doing.

Stunned by the comedian’s derisive remarks, the hosts responded by accusing Stewart of asking trivial questions of the many noteworthy guests on his own show, such as presidential candidate John Kerry. Stewart countered that as a comedian, he did not share the same journalistic responsibility as them. He expressed surprise that “the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity … If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.”

Crossfire was cancelled shortly after this infamous feud. Although Stewart was never explicitly mentioned as the reason for the cancellation, the CEO of CNN, Jonathan Klein, stated in interviews that he sympathized with Stewart’s stance and wanted to change the tone of the network.

Jon Stewart may be off the airwaves at the moment, but that doesn’t mean his legacy is over. He is reportedly in talks with HBO for some sort of future project. In the meantime, viewers can enjoy the newest era of satirical TV shows blurring the lines between humor and news. The Daily Show (now hosted by Trevor Noah), The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (which replaced The Colbert Report in 2014), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are just a few of the shows that owe their existence to Stewart’s legacy.

Obviously, comedy is an effective means of catching people’s interest. But these shows are more than just good television; these satirical news programs are remarkable cultural and political forces. Despite identifying himself exclusively as a comedian, Jon Stewart was ranked as the fourth most admired journalist in America in a 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. Commentators have suggested that many viewers use his show as a legitimate news source; in fact, some studies suggest that viewers of The Daily Show are more informed than those who use other sources of news.

This may lead us to entertain the notion that these mock news programs may in fact be better than the real ones. John Oliver, a Daily Show alumnus, has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his show, Last Week Tonight. In particular, the show was praised for its coverage of topics largely ignored by most American media outlets. More global in its approach, it has done stories on topics such as the 2014 Indian general election. And as an HBO show with no corporate ties, Oliver has no qualms about attacking powerful companies and organizations, such as the NFL.

But these shows’ real strength is their unique ability to comment on and criticize other news outlets. Satire has long been used as an effective tool for criticism, and the fake news programs practice it abundantly. Fox News, MSNBC and other 24-hour news channels are specifically targeted and ridiculed for their political and social biases, poor news coverage and misrepresentation of the facts.

Comedy news programs are free to drop the pretensions of appealing to a certain political demographic. And though all news necessarily relies on a combination of information and entertainment, programs like The Daily Show are able to express the entertainment aspect overtly as comedy. “Real” news outlets, however, tend to disguise it by sensationalizing and polarizing the facts. Or, as Stewart would call it, “theater.”

“How old are you?” Stewart interrupted suddenly, at one particularly heated moment during his infamous Crossfire confrontation.

“Thirty-five,” replied the host, confused by the unprompted personal question.

“And you wear a bow tie,” Stewart said, much to the amusement of the audience. “This is theater.”

According to Stewart, this mockery is done purely for the sake of comedy. But in a society where mainstream media has become a joke, maybe it’s time to start taking comedians a little more seriously.