Jon Stewart’s famous 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire remains a standout takedown of the pernicious culture of spin that dominates cable news. Revisiting the clip nearly seventeen years later, it’s immediately obvious why many of us still look back on it so favorably.
In debating cohosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, Stewart was effortlessly funny, rhetorically effective, and, in a few instances, practically lethal. Though he made fools of his interlocutors and their show, Stewart’s real target was, of course, the ethos they embodied — one summed up aptly enough by Begala during his intro: “As our loyal viewers, of course, know, our show is about all left versus white [sic], black versus white, paper versus plastic, Red Sox against the Yankees.”
Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, rural versus urban, coasts versus hinterland: it’s difficult to deny that American media, and cable networks in particular, often trades in reductive binaries and emotionally potent oversimplification. Division, after all, tends to be good for business, and cable news is probably best understood as a medium sitting firmly at the intersection of corporate profits and commodified hyperpartisanship. Stewart, whose appearance on Crossfire went viral again this week, wasn’t wrong to dismiss the hosts’ claims that they were simply providing a forum for honest ideological “debate”:
BEGALA: We’re thirty minutes in a twenty-four-hour day where we have each side on, as best we can get them, and have them fight it out.
STEWART: No, no, no, no, that would be great. To do a debate would be great. But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition . . . This is theater . . . 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.
If the comedian’s critique of empty cable TV theatrics was bang on, however, his prescription was decidedly wanting.
“Why do we have to fight?” Stewart pleaded at the outset of the segment. “Why do you argue, the two of you?” — the kind of why-can’t-we-all-just-get-alongism that would later define the quasi-ironic Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (and, more recently, his 2020 film Irresistible).
The festival reached its height as the spectators were treated to a video montage of fire-breathing pundits from all the major news networks denouncing their political opponents. The message was clear: Those who tell you there are fundamental differences between Americans that are worth getting emphatically angry about are lying to you. This divided America — an America that contains people with radically different values and radically different ideas of what a just, moral society looks like — does not exist. If it seems otherwise, it is simply because, as one sign at the rally put it, we fail to use our “inside voices.”
To a lesser but very real extent, the enduring popularity of Stewart’s Crossfire clip probably also owes itself to his dismantling of Carlson — the kind of spectacle-based rhetorical evisceration that became hugely popular and influential among liberals by way of the West Wing, the Daily Show, and their various imitators. (Conservatives, of course, have their own version of this, which is typically found in YouTube videos with titles like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS vegan SJW with pure logic.”)
Since 2004, these two impulses — post-partisanship and rhetorically dismantling the Right — have been taken up by liberals again and again. Again and again, they have failed to yield tangible political results.
Post-partisanship reached its apex during the Barack Obama era, as the president’s polite entreaties toward Republicans were met with obstruction, and liberal entertainers met Tea Party populism with a rally in defense of moderation (revealingly held just days before the Democratic wipeout in the 2010 midterms). Cable news shows, comedy specials, and prestige dramas, meanwhile, have produced no shortage of rhetorical takedowns, yet conservatism somehow remains a viable and politically powerful force. Tucker Carlson, his 2004 destruction by Stewart notwithstanding, has slid further into reactionary politics and is today one of the most influential figures in the American media.
To this day, Jon Stewart’s Crossfire appearance remains a solid and satisfying critique of cable news and the noxious culture on which it thrives. But its continued popularity is a sign that many liberals are still blind to cardinal truths about politics imparted again and again over the past seventeen years: you don’t ultimately win by elegantly dismantling your opponents on TV, being the “adult in the room,” or even by having good arguments. You win by building power and advancing a positive, popular, egalitarian political agenda that goes beyond simply making your opponents look bad.