Stewart’s Guardian Interview

Some observations about Stewart's interview (and some digression from me--okay, a lot of digression by me).

Jon Stewart

I would recommend the Jon Stewart interview in the Guardian:  Jon Stewart: why I quit The Daily Show, especially if one is a viewer of The Daily Show.

Apart from the biographical elements, two observations struck me as worth highlighting.  The first is about the nature of covering US politics (something to which I can relate, especially since I have been blogging for 12+ years):

If anything, it was the prospect of the upcoming US election that pushed him to leave the show. “I’d covered an election four times, and it didn’t appear that there was going to be anything wildly different about this one,” he says.

He reiterated this by noting what he sees as “an increasingly redundant process, which is our political process.”

There is, unfortunately a lot to this observation. Part of this is just the nature of the beast, i.e., a set electoral calendar and specific processes equate to a very familiar set of beats every four years.  Further, the ability of our system to address major policy challenges is so anemic (both as a result of design and then further exacerbated by partisan realities) that at some point one has said all one can say on the subject and/or one tires of trying to reach the ears of those who have yet to hear what one has to say.

As such, I can fully understand why he wants to move on at this stage of his career (and why quitting now is the best timing).  Also, on that score, he is correctly trying to set up his successor:  ”I also felt that, for the show, you don’t want to leave when the cupboard’s bare. So I think it’s a better introduction when you have something providing you with assisted fuel, like a presidential campaign.”

I was also struck by the following:

MSNBC, the liberal 24-hour news network, is, Stewart says, “better” than Fox News, “because it’s not steeped in distortion and ignorance as a virtue. But they’re both relentless and built for 9/11. So, in the absence of such a catastrophic event, they take the nothing and amplify it and make it craziness.”

No doubt, many of our readers will want to dispute the assertion that MSNBC is better than Fox.  On that comparative point I have no informed opinion insofar as my exposure to MSNBC for quite some time has been zero.  Some years ago now I went from a frequent consumer of cable news (mostly Fox and MSNBC) to largely ignoring it (save for breaking news events–and I tend to switch around even then).  I do get a sort of semi-exposure to CNN and Fox insofar as there are two TVs in the faculty/staff dining hall at my university.  One is tuned to CNN and the other to Fox, both with the sound off and the closed captioning on.  It makes for a visually interesting comparison.  CNN tends to be a bit more frenetic and, at least in the hour I normally eat, is a bit more news-focused than Fox.  I am often in that room when the vacuous “Outnumbered” is on Fox, and that does not inspire much confidence in the value of said programming–indeed, it underscores the notion that the network is “steeped in distortion and ignorance” (an assessment that I agree with in general vis-a-vis Fox, I must confess–and note, there was a time which it was my main news channel of choice).

For those not familiar, the program features four females and one male (he is, outnumbered, dontcha know and is also termed “One Lucky Guy”).  All the show appears to be to me is a) an excuse for the four women to sit in a semi-circle showing off their legs, and b) a chance to rant about whatever is considered rant-worthy at the moment by the producers at Fox News.  The guest is, as best as I can tell, rarely an expert on the topic under discussion (and is often a celebrity or simply another commentator).  Beyond hearing people rant about things that the viewers want to hear ranted about, I am not sure what the point is (and, indeed, this is my general view of Fox News).

Okay, digression over:  I really wanted to simply note the bolded portion of Stewart’s quote, as I think he identifies a key problem with cable news as it really does seem that the main paradigm is breaking tragedy and hyperbole–a lot of which (including the tickers at the bottom of the screen) was born in the wake of 9/11.  One does wonder when we are going to get over 9/11 (or, at least, put it in its proper place).  It is amazing, and more than a little depressing, the degree which the events of that day continue to shape not just media coverage, but (more importantly) national politics in general.

I would say that there is an important link between our politics and the media landscape.  On the one hand, yes, there are some key redundancies in our politics, but also the way it is covered is altogether too formulaic (or just plain absurd).  The formulaic part is stuff like the horse-race (as discussed in a recent post by James Joyner) but also the utterly silly stuff reported as if it is actually important (as identified in another of James’s posts this week).

Of course, whether it is horse-race stuff or the lack of tipping at burrito joints, what we are seeing here for the most part is laziness and the need to fill 24 hours, 7 days a week as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible.   Indeed, it is worth noting that while we will see a raft of accusations that the press is biased towards Hillary (or against X, Y, or Z) the truth is that the bias is towards an easy story.  It is always worth underscoring that the news, and especially cable news, is really in the entertainment business first and foremost, not the news business (if, by “news business” one means an attempt to gather and disseminate information in some useful fashion that actually leads to a more informed public).

Really, Stewart’s main contribution is more in his overall critique of the state of cable news than it is about politics, per se (and he says an awful lot of important things about US politics).

(BTW:  this post totally went out of control.  It was supposed to be a “Quick Pick” that noted the interview and then noted two quotes.  Instead, it is a bit of a ramble on cable news.  However, if that many words are going to come out of me on a lazy Sunday morning, they are going to get published, especially given limited blogging opportunities in recent months.  If you have reached this far in the post, my thanks and my apologies).

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    If your media enterprise is profit-driven, thus ratings-driven, you need viewership to remain as high as possible and take the crises as a bonus.

    If your media enterprise is not profit-driven – BBC, NPR – then you are indifferent to the ups and downs of the news cycle, do not need the endless hype and distortion, and can focus on news.

    MSNBC’s conceptual failure is in trying to be the liberal Fox. It’s a complete misconception of the liberal mindset. Fox is like liturgy in church: repetition, familiarity, reassurance. A conservative watching Fox will never have his established beliefs challenged. His established beliefs will be supported and reinforced. Ad infinitum. It is a closed system, like a cult.

    Liberals don’t want that or any version of that, which is why no one watches MSNBC. We actually want news.

    Nothing more clearly demonstrates the very different approaches of liberals and conservatives than the reactions to Mr. Obama’s very poor first debate with Mr. Romney. Conservatives confronted with failure on their side go into loud denial. But I was on a Jet Blue flight from liberal San Fran to liberal Boston watching that debate and no one was defending Mr. Obama’s performance. Next day I had a literary event in a room that had without doubt heavily backed Obama and all we talked about was Obama’s failure.

    Conservatives don’t do that, we do. They deny reality, we deny it less. We don’t want a closed loop of reassurance we want news.

  2. Tony W says:

    Once again, as often happens, all kinds of great responses came to mind reading this posting – then Michael wrote them all down much more eloquently than I ever could have hoped to. Nuff said.

  3. James Joyner says:

    One related thing that has occurred to me of late is that because, like you’ve, I’ve long stopped watching much televised news and, indeed, very little television politics coverage outside The Daily Show, is that I know the candidates much less than I used to. I really have a much less developed view of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and others than I did their counterparts in 1999 or 2003. I now react to written news coverage of them rather than to video sound bytes, appearances on the Sunday and other talking heads shows, etc.

  4. @michael reynolds:

    If your media enterprise is not profit-driven – BBC, NPR – then you are indifferent to the ups and downs of the news cycle, do not need the endless hype and distortion, and can focus on news.

    Indeed. In fact, those are two key news sources for me.

    I used to think that the profit motive and the market would propel news coverage, but, alas, that assumed that people actually want news–but, really, most do not.

  5. @James Joyner: I do think that how one consumes the news affects how one views it. On occasion it does strike me that my perceptions are now different than they were and some of that is based on how I consume information.

    I will say, however, that I feel as if I still have pretty strong impressions of the various candidates (but I have been exposed the least to Walker).

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yup. I listen to a lot of NPR and various podcasts related to NPR (Freakonomics, TED Radio, and a few others) these days because I want real news and/or discussion and hate commercial interruption. But we’re a very small part of the overall audience, indeed.

  7. @James Joyner: Indeed.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    No doubt, many of our readers will want to dispute the assertion that MSNBC is better than Fox. On that comparative point I have no informed opinion insofar as my exposure to MSNBC for quite some time has been zero.

    As Stewart said, MSNBC is marginally better than Fox “because it’s not steeped in distortion and ignorance as a virtue. But they’re both relentless and built for 9/11. So, in the absence of such a catastrophic event, they take the nothing and amplify it and make it craziness.”

    MSNBC would seem to be the ideal parallel universe (to FoxNews) for liberals and progressives to tune in to, but it is not, and ratings bear this out. Why is that? Two factors seem important to me:

    (1) Liberals and progressives do not feel the need to be in the ideological echo chamber 24/7.

    (2) I believe the Fox v MSNBC ratings divide shows that the number of people who are the parallel Democratic Party equivalent to the Base Republicans is definitely less – or to put it in other terms, the far Right is much more substantial in numbers than the far Left, it’s not close. The far Right is seemingly activated and strongly motivated by many issues: abortion, religion in the public square, gun ownership, taxes, and the presence of a moderate Black President, to name a few. There are very very few issues that strongly activate or motivate the far Left (or the Democratic Party in general, for that matter).

  9. an increasingly redundant process, which is our political process

    Isn’t this a good thing? The fact our political system isn’t wildly swinging around from one election to the next may make for boring comedy but it’s a sign of a stable society.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    I think we should start by criminalizing the overuse of “Breaking news.” Any network using “Breaking news” to introduce news we’ve all known for hours, should have its anchor publicly whipped on-air.

    Sorry, Wolf, but sometimes harsh measures are called for.

  11. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You would think that CNN, FOX and MSNBC would be purpose built for actual Breaking News, but it may be the thing that they are worst at doing well.

    When there is a high profile shooting or a plane crash, the actual reporting of the facts is 10% of the coverage and speculation is the other 90%. And they continue this type of coverage for hours and hours if not days and days. The Indonesian Air crash where Don Lemon hypothesized about the plane being sucked into a black hole may be the most egregious recent example.

    At least, CNN has actual news reporters in addition to the talking heads, but MSNBC and FOX are only talking heads.

    But they’re both relentless and built for 9/11.

    I think the other seminal event that built How News Is Reported Today is the O. J. Simpson trial.

  12. @Stormy Dragon:

    Isn’t this a good thing? The fact our political system isn’t wildly swinging around from one election to the next may make for boring comedy but it’s a sign of a stable society.

    Certain amounts of regularity and predictability are good and necessary, yes.

    However, I do think that the current predictable nature of our partisan fights (and the media coverage thereof) as well as a stable pattern of no being able to govern very well is highly problematic.

  13. @Steven L. Taylor:

    The partisanship is a reflection of a deep division in the voting public itself, so again one could argue that the inability for either side to impose their will on the other is a good thing. It’s certainly better to have that sort of situation characterized by people bickering on cable news rather than a civil war the way it would be working out in many countries.

  14. J-Dub says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Any network using “Breaking news” to introduce news we’ve all known for hours,

    When Buzzfeed is eating your lunch, it’s time to for CNN to re-examine it’s position in the news realm.

  15. J-Dub says:

    @de stijl:

    I think the other seminal event that built How News Is Reported Today is the O. J. Simpson trial.

    They seem to be using this model for every plane crash now. Relentless, mind-numbing coverage until something “better” comes along. Along Michael’s point, “Breaking News, the plane is still missing after one year”.

  16. J-Dub says:

    For my money, Al Jazeera America has the best news coverage and far more in-depth reporting. Fox News probably didn’t lose any viewers to AJN, but MSNBC probably did.

  17. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I believe that we (collectively) have done a poor job of raising kids in at least one respect. We’ve failed to instruct them in the differences between news and entertainment. Of course, the Fox News demographic is (for the most part) way beyond adolescence, but I think Fox’s appeal to them is exactly the familiarity and repetition cited in the post.

  18. @Stormy Dragon:

    The partisanship is a reflection of a deep division in the voting public itself, so again one could argue that the inability for either side to impose their will on the other is a good thing.

    Well, yes and no. On the one hand sure: a great deal of what we are seeing is reflective of various public sentiments. On the other, however, I would argue that much of what we see (and end up with) is not an especially good reflection of public sentiment. The lack of competitive House districts, the way that small slices of the electorate can disproportionately influence who the candidate are in those noncompetitive elections are, and the degree to which the Senate is highly influenced (if not controlled at times) by a minority all call into question the degree to which we see public sentiments being well represented in our politics. You can throw is then way the presidential nomination process (e.g., the roles of IA and NH, etc.) and the electoral college distorts competition and my skepticism about your basic proposition grows.

    It’s certainly better to have that sort of situation characterized by people bickering on cable news rather than a civil war the way it would be working out in many countries.

    Well, certainly. Except, of course, those aren’t the only two choices.

  19. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    The relentless nature and inanity of 24/7 breaking news coverage has been with us a long time–witness how old the “General Franco is STILL DEAD” joke is and what it referred to.

  20. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: ” I really have a much less developed view of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and others than I did their counterparts in 1999 or 2003.”

    Not really – IMHO, what you are missing is seeing their faces and hearing the same old same old speech ad nauseam. If you read competent columnists and analysts, you’ll know far more.

    For example, if you read Krugman and Molly Ivins in 2000, you knew far more about Bush than you’d have known from watching TV. That’s because the TV picture was false.

  21. Barry says:

    @de stijl: “I think the other seminal event that built How News Is Reported Today is the O. J. Simpson trial.”

    Remember, CNN was brought to prominence by the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the first Gulf War.

  22. Ken says:

    @al-Ameda: the number of people who are the parallel Democratic Party equivalent to the Base Republicans is definitely less – or to put it in other terms, the far Right is much more substantial in numbers than the far Left, it’s not close

    I wouldn’t put it so much in terms of far left and far right in this particular context. It strikes me as more of a reflection of the fact that authoritarianism is both more common and more pronounced on the Right

  23. I look forward to the day that cable “news” organizations drop the charade and just become “entertainment,” much as Vince McMahon did with the WWF (even before the World Wildlife Fund screwed up their acronym).

    For those that don’t get the reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HznErMk97B4