Jesse Thorn and On the Media hosts discuss Jon Stewart's immunity to criticism

In a recent episode of The Sound of Young America, Jesse Thorn interviewed Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, the hosts of On the Media, a media criticism show on NPR.

Around 22:30 in to the interview, Jesse and Brooke have an exchange on The Daily Show that echoes the thoughts of my post "Jon Stewart should stop using comedy as a shield."

Thorn: As wonderful a media critic as Jon Stewart is, he seems very disinterested in bearing the burden of responsibility for anything he says — and in fact insists against all questioning that all he's trying to do is be funny and that's it, forever and ever amen.

Gladstone: Right. This is true, of course. He has created a wonderfully convenient out for himself.

(Gladstone then claims that Stewart has been backing away from this stand, but Thorn disagrees with her.)

Good to see I'm not the only one feeling this way. Just to be clear, everyone in the interview loves Stewart and The Daily Show — and I do too. This isn't about do you like Jon Stewart, it's about whether it's ok for him to deflect all criticism with his "but I'm just a clown" excuse. It's awfully convenient to point fingers for a living and then argue that you're immune from the same kinda treatment. In my book, if ya give it, ya gotta be willing to take it.


myq said...

"If ya give it, ya gotta be willing to take it."

What is the "it" that should be dished and taken, by Stewart or others?
Criticism in general?

There's nothing wrong with the attitude, but the two "it"s have to be similar, don't they?

Going back to someone else's apt parallel to movies and movie critics, someone can reasonably critique a movie without being a movie-maker, just like Stewart can critique the legitimate news world without being as real a part of that world.

If a movie critic is telling the truth about a bad movie, what does it matter whether they could make a good one?

A movie critique might be entertaining or not, but that doesn't change the fact of how good or bad the movie is.

I think it makes sense to criticize Stewart if you disagree with what he's SAYING, but not on the grounds that he should be holding himself to the same standard as the people he's criticizing, because he's not the same. He's not a legitimate journalist the same way a movie critic is not a filmmaker.

PS Did you see Janeane Garafalo was just in the Boston Herald, quoted as calling the teabag folks "racist" and/or "rednecks," I believe, and loads of angry comments followed, calling her varying combinations of stupid, unfunny, and ugly.

Sometimes when you dish things out, people want you to take all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the dish you were serving.

In conclusion, Jon Stewart is ugly.

Matt Ruby said...

"it" is a critique, being willing to subject yourself to outside criticism the way you criticize others.

fwiw, i would love to see someone critique movie critics. why should critics be immune from criticism? they should be the ones who respect it the most, no?

also, i'm not even sure the analogy is apt. what this situation really is: a televised media commentator criticizing other televised media commentators. it's not like the crossfire guys or jim cramer are moviemakers and jon stewart is a film critic. they're all doing the same thing: giving opinions on TV. one does it funnier than the others, but it's still in the same arena. and should therefore be open to the peanut gallery in the same way IMO.

myq said...

To me, the relevant difference is that Crossfire was on CNN, a news network, and Stewart is on Comedy Central, a comedy network.

I honestly don't believe their motivations or jobs are the same.

Not that people CAN'T criticize Stewart. Of course people can say what they like about him, and it doesn't matter what he says, people can think and feel what they do.

And I said that also--I'm not saying that movie critics should be immune to criticism, but they should be criticized in an appropriate context.

But sincerely, I don't believe they're just all "televised media commentators."

Stewart IS a comedian.
The people he's criticizing are pundits, and journalists, and other people presenting themselves as more serious purveyors of information and news, as well as opinions, are they not?

Matt Ruby said...

Yeah Myq, this is Stewart's big argument too ("I'm on the same network as sock puppets making crank calls"). I guess this is the part that I take issue with:

Stewart IS a comedian.
The people he's criticizing are pundits, and journalists, and other people presenting themselves as more serious purveyors of information and news, as well as opinions, are they not?
The issue I see here is the notion that because someone is a comedian they shouldn't be taken seriously. I see the role of some (but not all) comedians as truthtellers. People like Carlin, Hicks, Maher, Rock, etc. They're out there being funny but they're also out there saying stuff that society needs to hear.

I think you can be a comedian and still be taken seriously. And when someone like Stewart, who clearly is intelligent, serious, and opinionated, claims what he's saying isn't legitimate and can't be taken seriously, I feel like it damages that strain of comedy that is also serving an important function in our society.

I don't think Maher or Carlin would ever back down from criticism by saying "I'm only a comedian so don't take me seriously." Some comedians are clowns and deserve to be treated in line with that. Some comedians are truthtellers who are doing the valuable service of saying the emperor has no clothes. I think it's a disservice to lump them all together.

Matteson said...

Imagine this situation: The Daily Show has gone through a rough patch where it's not really funny for a few months. Stewart has on a talking head pundit (O'Reilly for instance). Imagine O'Reilly says, "Jon, you haven't had your fastball for a few months now. The shows just not funny anymore. What happened?" and Stewart responded by saying, "Yeah, well, what about your show? Your show isn't funny at all. We're still funnier than you." O'Reilly would fairly say, "Well, while we do try to be a little amusing on The Factor, we're primarily a news show and that's what we're concerned with." It would be unfair of Stewart to shrug off valid comments about the quality of comedy on his show by comparing it to a show that's not supposed to be funny. Basically the inverse of this fictional example is what's happening now.

When someone like Tucker Carlson responds to criticism by saying "yeah, but you're interviews aren't hard hitting either" it's unfair, because they're not the same type of show. Stewart is criticizing the journalist's "apples" and they respond by saying "your apples suck too" and Stewart says "but this isn't an apple. It's an orange." And I think he's right. The Daily Shows primary push is to be funny. If their satire makes important points about politics or media, then all the better, but they're primary focus is to be funny. So when journalists cast the light back on Stewart, they're really just passing the buck, and they're passing it to a comedian, which is what Stewart gets angry about.

On a side note, I think one reason Stewart is so amendment about this is that he believes (and he's probably right) that if he ever starts putting together the show by trying to do important things, instead of trying to be funny, the show will suffer. He's able to make important/interesting points because he's funny. It just wouldn't work the other way around.

myq said...

"The issue I see here is the notion that because someone is a comedian they shouldn't be taken seriously."

I'm not saying he shouldn't be taken seriously, and I don't believe HE is saying he shouldn't be taken seriously.

If he is suggesting that the things he is saying are not valid, then I agree with you, Matt, in disagreeing with him.

But I think Matteson's analogy is pretty much on point.

Stewart is doing his thing, and I think he does take responsibility appropriately.

Seriously, if he started claiming "what I'm doing is very important," how effective would that be?

The fact that he is not bound by the rules and conventions that journalists and news follow, the fact that he IS a comedian, that is in fact a large part of what allows him to speak the truth.

But if he declared that that was what he was doing, I honestly believe that would detract from what he was doing, and its effectiveness.

Hank in Chicago said...

Ruby, I think you have a very interesting insight on your hands but I feel compelled to toss my hat into the ring of your dissenters. (all of them good men, even you! Here here. Raise your snifters!)

What Stewart accomplishes via The Daily Show is that he doesn't mislead his audience. He doesn't claim to be news, he doesn't claim to be opinion media, and he doesn't claim to speak for anyone except himself (or his writers). He claims to be a court jester and that is exactly what he is. And in that role he has become a truth-teller. I'm confident we all agree that truth-telling is something that is sorely lackg in our society. No?

The debate here is to which standard is Stewart held? A journalistic one or a comedic one?

I would argue that as a finger-pointer Stewart doesn't represent policy-makers or entrenched opinion-makers. He represents the under-served market of people burdened by logic and sanity. A group with too few outlets in recent decades.

My personal wish is that Stewart branches out into his own interview show. I'm frequently frustrated when his comedic instincts interrupt what would otherwise be a great interview, even though I understand his principal mandate is to bring the funny.

He's at his finest when he's serious. Imagine him as Charlie Rose, except with precision and insight. Whereas Rose is a stone tool; Stewart is a scalpel (or an arthroscopic laser camera with gripping arms!)

Ok, enough!

Matt Ruby said...
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Matt Ruby said...

He doesn't claim to be news, he doesn't claim to be opinion media, and he doesn't claim to speak for anyone except himself (or his writers).

What matters more: who someone claims to be or who they actually are? I could claim I'm not a diamond thief but if I'm...well, you get where this analogy is going.

Peter Orszag is profiled in this week's New Yorker. The article starts with him talking to Stewart "in the green room of what has become, in recent years, the locus of reliably liberal sensibility in this country—the midtown studios where Jon Stewart tapes The Daily Show." There's an interesting anecdote that follows about Stewart, "who kept up his routine while feigning stupidity, all the while sneaking in well-informed questions."

Something seems off to me when a guy is claiming to be just a "fake news" "snake oil salesman" yet is also considered "the locus of reliably liberal sensibility in this country" by one of the most literate, politically astute magazines out there.

myq said...

He may indeed be claiming to be something less than he is, but that's humility, not deceit. It's reasonable modesty.

If you asked Louis CK if he was a genius, what do you think he would say?
"Absolutely I'm a genius"?
I doubt it.
But if you ask most anyone else, they probably would agree "Absolutely he's a genius."

Claiming to be something more modest than the sum of what you actually may be? That's not a flaw.

Plus, the news media isn't supposed to be "reliably liberal," is it?

I'm sure Stewart would have no trouble accepting being described as "reliable, liberal, and sensible," but there are plenty of people that can be so described without being the NEWS.

Matt Ruby said...

Myq, I get what ya mean. But if the people Stewart attacks, Jim Cramer and the Crossfire guys, said they shouldn't be criticized because their shows are merely entertainment...would you call that humility and reasonable modesty? Would they then become immune to any criticism that Stewart levels against them?

(This is fun! FYI, I still love Stewart. And I'm not even sure what the hell we're arguing about anymore.)

myq said...

That's a good question.
But is that really what the Crossfire guys are saying?

Here's from the Wikipedia page about Stewart's first Crossfire appearance where he yelled at them: "[Stewart] said the program failed its responsibility to the public discourse and indulged in 'partisan hackery,' reducing the news to a series of talking points from both extremes of the political spectrum. Carlson countered Stewart's criticisms by reading examples of questions Stewart had asked of then-presidential candidate John Kerry during his recent interview on The Daily Show, such as, 'How are you holding up?' and 'Have you ever flip-flopped?' Carlson argued that Stewart wasn't harsh enough on Kerry and had wasted an opportunity to hold a politician accountable just like he was accusing Crossfire of doing. Stewart said that he didn't think his role as a comedian was to conduct hard-hitting interviews, observing that the show preceding his was 'puppets making crank phone calls;' and that if CNN was looking to Comedy Central as a role model for journalism 'then we're in big trouble.'

Begala defended the show on the basis that it was intended as a forum for debate, to which Stewart responded that Crossfire was closer to theatre than genuine debate."

It seems like Crossfire is being defended as "genuine debate" and not entertainment, here...

Are they really saying now that a show like this on CNN is "just entertainment"?
Certainly, by virtue of being ON that network, there is an implication of at least purporting to be more than that.

And now, isn't it Jim Kramer the one saying that Stewart is "just a comedian" whose opinions are thus less significant?

(I honestly haven't followed all the backs and forths, so if you have more recent direct quotes that speak to this issue, feel free to let me know.)

PS I also like Jon Stewart. And Matt Ruby.

Matt Ruby said...

But is that really what the Crossfire guys are saying?

I actually meant it more as a hypothetical. But you know what they say about hypothetical questions...they make an ass out of you AND me. That is what they say, right?

myq said...

"Hypothetical" makes "Holy Pathetic!" if you scramble it.

You can also add "Batman" if you like.

Now we're back on course!

Chris Conway said...

Great discussion guys. I feel compelled to weigh in here with a long-winded response that may or may not be redundant to what you've discussed.

Now please imagine this situation as well: It is near the end of the film Field of Dreams. Nine-year-old Karin Kinsella is laying on the ground choking to death on a hot dog lodged in her throat because her uncle Mark, a cynical big shot banker from the sinful metropolis of Dubuque who can’t see the baseball men through the cloud of his own hip urban pomposity, has knocked her from the bleachers. Her suspected communist mother Annie is headed towards the house to call 911. Ray Kinsella, Karin’s financially and aurally misguided father, calls out for Annie to stop, however, because he sees Karin’s salvation, in the form of a young Moonlight Graham, standing at the edge of his baseball diamond. Despite the fact that a young girl’s life hangs in the balance, Graham hesitates for a moment before finally stepping off the diamond and heading over to save Karin’s life. The reason: Once he steps off the diamond, he will cease to be a baseball player and will instead become a doctor with a doctor’s responsibilities. Now I’m not sure what the responsibilities of a dead doctor in the afterlife are, but Moonlight Graham seems to know what they are and he happily, it seems, accepts them. Because when Ray realizes that Graham can’t go back to playing baseball, Graham assures him that it’s all good.

What the fuck am I talking about?

I think Jon Stewart is a more conflicted version of Moonlight Graham right now. He stepped off the diamond to save a life but keeps insisting that he’s still a baseball player because he doesn’t want a doctor’s responsibilities. Stewart was a comedian and doesn’t want to be anything more than a comedian but at some point people started getting knocked off of bleachers and Stewart was driven to save them. He may have been motivated by any number of factors: idealism, patriotism, outrage, pride, fame, selflessness, opportunity, even the simple pursuit of laughs, but Stewart seems to have become, against his wishes, something else; perhaps a pundit, a humorist, a critic, something else. I don’t believe he became a truth-teller because I put the same amount of faith in the existence of truth-tellers as I do actual visions of dead baseball players, but he probably became something different from a comedian.

I enjoy watching Bill Maher’s show a great deal. In fact, I like it more than the Daily Show but I don’t really think of Bill Maher as a comedian anymore. I find Maher to be thoughtful, intelligent, opinionated and consistently funny but I think Maher takes himself too seriously to be a comedian and is intent on pushing an agenda or ideas that don’t mesh with being a comedian. I don’t think of Maher as primarily funny anymore. I think that’s one of the inherent contradictions and great challenges in being a comedian. You must go at the sacred cows without letting yourself or your ideas become the sacred cow. You can’t step off the diamond. I agree, Matt, that Maher wouldn’t ask you to not take him seriously, but that is exactly why I don’t consider Maher to be truly a comedian anymore. I think it’s a little more important to Maher to be taken seriously than to be considered a comedian, and I think it’s just the opposite with Stewart. I’m not knocking Maher; I just think he serves a different purpose these days than that of a comedian.

This point is driven home when you watch a guy like Chris Rock, who remains essentially a comedian, on shows such as Bill Maher’s. He answers Maher’s questions while at the same time toying with the self-seriousness of Maher’s discussions, and it’s funny and it’s clear that Chris Rock believes his number one duty is to be funny, and that Maher no longer feels that way. You see similar behavior and actions from Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and David Letterman in “serious” discussions. It seems, at the very least, that they strive to recognize the inherent absurdity in everything, including their own beliefs, thoughts and actions. In fact, the only time it seems these guys are ever truly serious in interviews is when they are discussing comedy, which of course absolves me here of the sin of talking seriously about comedians being too serious. But I do believe you have to take your comedy seriously without making comedy that takes itself too seriously. Louis CK is brilliantly insightful but there is no question that he is a comedian first. There is always the tension between the point you are trying to make and the laughs you are trying to get and when the point you want to make becomes more and more important, I think you are standing at the edge of the diamond.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Seinfeld said this about comedy: “Comedy decides. We don’t service actors or stars. We serve comedy, what ever is best for the comedy. We don’t do things for people. We do things for comedy. You respect the comedy gods and they will keep you in their graces.” I think Stewart fears he stepped off the diamond and is afraid that just like Dr. Moonlight Graham, the gods aren’t going to let him back on, which makes him question whether he should have ever left in the first place. In that sense, he actually bears a strong similarity to another fictional doctor, Jack Shepherd from Lost:


If Jon Stewart is serious about not wanting to be taken seriously and feels strongly conflicted about it, then it might be time to leave The Daily Show (Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle both ended their shows when they lost their senses of COMEDIC purpose regarding the shows), or he could stay and accept the fact that he has left the diamond to fulfill another, and perhaps greater, purpose. As Moonlight Graham says to Ray Kinsella when Ray is distressed about Graham missing out on his dream, “Son, if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes... now that would have been a tragedy.”

…..Except that the puppy was a dog, but the industry, my friends – that was a revolution. Stay on the diamond. Knibb High Football Rules!

Matt Ruby said...

Interesting points Chris. But maybe you can expand on them a bit?


Seen Maher do standup recently? I think he'd still consider himself a comedian in that forum (but maybe not as much on Real Time).

myq said...

Everyone is right. (Except for me when I say everyone is right.)

Sincerely, I think Matt is right on about Maher and context.

You can be a comedian and an actor and a talk show host, but you don't have to be doing all of them at the same time.

Matteson said...

When Chris started his comment I thought it was a joke response, then I realized halfway through the first paragraph that the convoluted story was the actual scene from "Field of Dreams." I've never really liked that movie, but then again I don't like baseball, or America, or happiness. However, I thought it was an apt analogy Chris. And it made me feel less self conscious about posting along comment.

Maybe this very issue is why Colbert decided to go the character route with his show.

Hell of a discussion boys.

ET said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ET said...

Damn this instinct to not give up...

...even when I can no longer tell who the winners and losers are...

I read that whole Field of Dreams thing by Chris Conway and in some strange way it made sense, much like the way a bag of charcoal makes sense: keep away from children.

I want to argue against Matt's use of the word "attack" in describing what Stewart did to Crossfire and Cramer because it accepts conservative framing and I want to rail on the subject of a comedy show crossing the line between entertainment, infotainment and edutainment (*shudder* I feel cheap just using those words) while pointing a multi-fingered hand at Real Time despite my personal opinions about Maher's standup versus his unique brand of social commentary and I want to dissect the ways in which Stewart dodges behind his comedy shield and whether or not such dodges are becoming of a comedian of his stature and whether or not they indicate his position as a spokesman for a frustrated generation... but...

... mostly I just want you guys to check out the following link demonstrating that Daily Show viewers tend to know more about the world than the rest of the pack.


(I don't know how to properly link so copy and paste it into your browser)


-Hank in Chicago

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