Back in October of 2004, Jon Stewart — then at the height of his fame and relevance — went on CNN’s “Crossfire” and committed a murder on live TV. You can read the transcript here. Readers will recall this was the infamous “hurting America” clip, where Stewart crapped all over the very concept of a debate show that paired left and right as co-equals in a running debate over the direction of America.
Stewart, who’s a fan of uninformed hubristic rants generally but will put the clown nose back on the minute you call him on it, went on a jeremiad against hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as representing the worst aspects of American politics. But looking back on the ramifications of his comments — “Crossfire” was canceled months later — what do we see? There is today essentially no program on all of cable television that pairs left and right perspectives on camera as co-equal hosts, allowed to engage in free and open debate about the topics of the day.
So we should ask: Is that a good thing? Is the media landscape Stewart helped create better for it, where Brian Williams regularly engages in Stewart-like snark (he called Ron Johnson a Russian asset the other day for reading a Federalist article into the record) and Tucker Carlson is the biggest name as a solo act in cable news?
In a context in which so much ink is dedicated to the concept of silos and the elimination of common space between right and left — and I mean the real right and left, not David Brooks and Maureen Dowd — do we honestly want a world where there is no space where these warring sides meet to do rhetorical battle?
The answer is: of course not. It’s much, much worse. The inability to have a space where such debates play out, and the inability of existing entities to provide such a space, has led directly to a degradation of our political conversation and a lack of familiarity with even the most basic version of the other side’s perspective on the world.
Why does Nancy Pelosi get away with lashing out at any difficult question from Wolf Blitzer or Judy Woodruff as a Republican talking point? Because on some level, beyond the acting, it really might be the first time she’s heard that question coming out of the mouth of anyone.
On a certain level, this is a generational mistake. Gen Xers and older millennials revered Jon Stewart to a level that was undeserved and continues to have negative outcomes in the form of all his talentless imitators. CNN listened to him and nuked one of the last common spaces for left and right to do battle in a demanding way. We need a return to debate in our communities, in the public square, where people can see these arguments play out and decide who has the better of the argument. Without this, we only dig deeper into the societal silos that restrict our knowledge and leave us astonished at the views of our fellow Americans.