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June 08, 2012 11:59 AM Jon Stewart and False Equivalence

By Ryan Cooper

Count me among the many devoted fans of Jon Stewart, but this segment from Wednesday’s show bothered me a bit:

In case you can’t watch, the segment was on the failed Wisconsin recall election, and Stewart drew an extended comparison between the right-wing gloating on Fox News and the left-wing sadness on MSNBC, that came perilously close to one of the cardinal sins of journalism, the false equivalence. Stewart implied that MSNBC is a equally hackish left-wing version of Fox News.

Now, Stewart isn’t a journalist, as he always is quick to point out, but this is the sort of thing he loves to carp on in cable news, as in his famous Crossfire interview. False equivalence (also known as High Broderism, the kind of pox-on-both-their-houses frame that is so common on Op-Ed pages) is dishonest, lazy, and attempts to arrogate a kind of “arbiter of all wisdom” position that the journalist has not earned.

In point of fact, while Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz do have a whiff of hackery about them, MSNBC also gives three hours of morning TV to a former Republican congressman (Joe Scarborough), and also has a lot of honest, non-hack programming, especially Up with Chris Hayes, perhaps the best political talk show in the last twenty years. Stewart’s frame, in short, is bogus.

I reckon the lesson here is that the obnoxious tics that dominate elite media, the view from nowhere, High Broderism, abuse of the sphere of deviance, etc., have a powerful attraction if Jon Stewart can be drawn into them. (And this isn’t the first time.)

Ryan Cooper is the Monthly handyman. Follow him on Twitter @ryanlcooper.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • Nick on June 08, 2012 1:04 PM:

    Yes ... and soon we'll be seeing those clever 'Indecision 2012' pieces. Arr, arr.

  • SYSPROG on June 08, 2012 1:06 PM:

    I'm with you Ryan...you could tell Stewart was hacked off during the 'bit' but I think he went too much to BOTH SIDES DO IT. Last night he was back on track. I love Ed and Lawrence and yes again, there might be a tad bit of partisanship about them but I think Ed especially nailed it with his interview with EJ Dionne and Thomas Franks. We need MUCH more of THAT!

  • RalfW on June 08, 2012 1:06 PM:

    Tuesday's Wyatt Cenac segment interviewing pro and anti recall leaders in WI was the worst piece of both-sides-do-it. Just utter junk.
    If it had been funny, I'd excuse the bad premise. But since it was both not funny and wrongheaded, it just sucked. Majorly.

  • Hedda Peraz on June 08, 2012 1:11 PM:

    Let's not get too kissy kissy for RINO Joe.
    The "Stunningly superficial" host is all too often just that!

    http://www.salon.com/2012/06/07/joe_scarborough_says_new_york_times_is_thin_skinned_for_correcting_his_nonsense/

  • castanea on June 08, 2012 1:13 PM:

    I used to enjoy Jon Stewart, but like many folks, I too am tired of his reliance on false equivalence.

    The only purpose of the false equivalence tactic is to portray both parties as equally responsible for the troubles America faces, rather than to highlight the differences.

    Given the low-level of political knowledge of the typical American voter, if the electorate believes "both parties are to blame," it will tend to slant in favor of the party that jabbers endlessly about cutting taxes and balancing budgets, rather than the party that has tried to get stuff done.

    Stewart knows this is true, so why he keeps stringing along the "both sides" meme is beyond me.

  • Shantyhag on June 08, 2012 1:35 PM:

    I saw this too and was disturbed by exactly the same thing. I had seen the Maddow clip the night before, and watching it again I was struck by how dead-on she seemed to be. The death of unions is a truly disturbing harbinger of doom for Democratic fund raising; she was right, Stewart failed to acknowledge that fact. Love Jon Stewart, but he failed here.

  • Anonymous on June 08, 2012 1:52 PM:

    the daily show writers are liberal but comedians. They care a lot about politics but they actually don't know a lot of laws and legislations and run on general, amateur impressions of news media.

    They don't write jokes based on new york time, washington post or wall street journals, but Fox and CNN and MSNBC without any fact checking.

    It's a shame when they are actually pretty liberal at heart but feel like staying neutral to keep "credibility" with general audience who are also not that informed.

    i think many people including a few liberals, for example, now think that Obama is just as bad or just as the same as Bush Jr, even though the facts seem to indicate that Obama has been a much better than average, but not historically exceptional, president.

  • c u n d gulag on June 08, 2012 2:01 PM:

    Yeah, I saw this, too - and I was screaming at my TV set, "Et tu, Stewart? Et et?..."

    I think since his little get-together with Colbert last fall, he's starting to kind of "High-Broderish" himself. Some of his interviews with Conservative hacks and writers have been awful lately - especially that guy who wrote that "history" book about how Jefferson was VERY religious.

    OY!

  • Jim on June 08, 2012 2:04 PM:

    Stewart implied that MSNBC is a equally hackish left-wing version of Fox News.
    He's been doing this for some time. More than once he has not only compared networks-- and you're right about Schultz and O'Donnell-- he's drawn direct comparisons between Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. Schultz at his worst is nowhere near as nasty and hackish as Hannity.

    I wish I'd had the foresight to note whom he was interviewing when he said it so I could find the transcript, but a couple of years ago while interviewing a conservative and striving mightily to have a Very Serious Discussion, Stewart said roughly "People on the right are upset about the Obama's spending, people on the left were upset about the Iraq War" as if these were equally debatable notions. It was passing fair strange, but it was the shape of things to come. He still has his moments, but starting with the weak tea of his half of the Rally About Nothing, he really has OD'd on his own image as a voice of above-it-all-reasonableness. His interview of Mann and Ornstein was simply awful. If you blocked his name out from the transcript, it might as well have been Wolf Blitzer or David Gregory.

  • Anonymous on June 08, 2012 2:15 PM:

    i remember Jon Stewart mentioned that Republicans accusing of Obama for not being American is just as bad as Democrats accusing of Bush for secretly planning 9/11.

    Yes, both sides have stupid voters.
    but did any actually Democratic elected politicians of local, state or federal levels or judges or cabinet members actually speak for that conspiracy?
    did any of them refuse to deny it as a lie?
    did majority of Democrats believe that Bush planned 9/11 on any official polls?

  • kmartin on June 08, 2012 3:29 PM:

    Okay...he was joking. And he played clips of what was actually on the air. He didn't call them hacks. He didn't say they were just like FOX news, but he joked about their denial of the results of the recall. I am a fan of MSNBC, I watch Rachel Maddow regulary (not as much lawrence or ed shultz) but I can admit that the denial of the results (while I am not happy with the results) was almost comical. Lighten up - sometimes we have to laugh at ourselves too.

  • estamm on June 08, 2012 4:43 PM:

    Another part of that segment was bad too... how they showed the clip of the guy saying "Democracy died tonight", and Steward mocking him for that. But the entire context of that claim was omitted... I am positive that the guy was meaning that the Koch brothers pretty much bought that election, and that the pervasiveness of money (and the rich) in politics is destroying democracy. And that is absolutely correct.

  • PTate in MN on June 08, 2012 4:49 PM:

    I love Jon Stewart, and I will always be a super-fan. I consider the occasions when he gets it wrong--for example, this false equivalence bit on the WI recall--to be profoundly useful. What gives Stewart his brilliance is his well-honed moral compass, his sense of what is decent and appropriate and his sharp media critique, not his expert knowledge of politics. I find him basically apolitical and centrist. He only seems left-leaning because the Republicans, so morally objectionable and hypocritical, provide comedians with a target-rich environment.

    When Stewart gets it wrong, bingo, I can know that that the political story is too complicated for the low information voter.

    So Stewart's instincts told him that the Dems were just trying to overturn the legitimate winner of the 2010 election. Okay, that tells me that the conservative propaganda worked. People would rather believe that the Dems were thugs who over-reached rather than that Scott Walker is a stooge for the Koch brothers or that outside conservative interests paid millions of dollars to misinform gullible voters.

    This tells me, that heading into November, we need to strengthen our messages. We are in a campaign season where the the best "lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Conservative movement operatives see their opportunity to dismantle the only entities in a position to constrain capitalists (unions, government,) and they are going to stop at nothing to win this election. So how do we give a gullible, low-information public the perspective to recognize the danger?

  • Steve Young on June 08, 2012 4:55 PM:

    Worse was that he implied that recalling a government official and running fake Democratic candidates were just two sides of the same coin. The Wyatt Ceynak piece was a horror. I too am tiring of the false equivalence b.s.

  • Jose Hipants on June 08, 2012 5:43 PM:

    Stuart seemed to have no idea what the Wisconsin recall was even about, or the deep trouble Democracy is in.