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Jon Stewart and the simplification of the media

He's going...don't cry.
He’s going…don’t cry.

There’ll be a lot of Jon Stewart clips flying around the internet in the next few days, weeks and months — after the satirist/comedian/political commentator has announced he’s standing down from his week-nightly slot on The Daily Show sometime this year.

Many of these clips will have him behind his desk, glint in his eye, ready to take on another media behemoth or government faux pas with a stinging put-down. And while The Daily Show is without a shadow of a doubt the best thing since humans thought “god these loaves would be much more manageable in smaller pieces”. There’s one clip that needs more recognition and it isn’t even from Stewart’s magnum opus. It’s from CNN’s Crossfire programme, its 10 years old and it deserves some context.

In 2004 Jon Stewart was promoting a book he’d written before the US Presidential Election. He was invited onto CNN’s flagship debate show Crossfire. Crossfire was at the height of its powers and the premise of the show was mind-numbingly simple – Tucker Carlson (the man in the bowtie) and Paul Begala (the man without the bowtie) would “discuss” — with the help of a guest — an item of news. Tucker (bowtie) would spout the Republican viewpoint, Begala (no-bowtie) would give the Democrat side of the argument. This would go on for 30 minutes and everyone would be safe in the knowledge that America was no further towards sorting out any of its problems.

However, no one, either with or without bow-tie, could have foreseen what was about to happen when Jon Stewart took them to task on the basic foundations of their employment.

“But the thing is that this — you’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great. It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.”

In essence Stewart thought it was absurd to pretend every issue could be reduced to a forced choice between the right and the left. He saw Crossfire for what it was – a Jerry Springer-esque show that masqueraded itself as a political debate. Doing more harm than good. The half hour then took a turn for the worst as the bowtied and the non-bowtied traded shots with Stewart that were as childish as they were amusing.

But the upshot? Crossfire was cancelled within 6 months of the airing of this programme.

And the reason it resonates 10 years on? Because it says so much about our media today — not just in America but across the western world. Be it a BBC Journalist attempting to get a French Jewish woman to apologise for Israel or a Sky news anchor trying to trap a politician into a sound bite. The sooner the media, our media, realise they have journalistic responsibilities to the rest of society that involve not engaging in simple black and white debates, the sooner we as a society will have a lot less black and white debates.

The simplification of news has to stop.

Words by Jamie Timson


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