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Jon Stewart's Long War with CNN is Getting Bitter, Petty

The Atlantic

Last night Jon Stewart went on familiar tirade against CNN on a good day to pick on CNN. While he spent almost six minutes ranting on how they botched their Boston bomber reporting, building up to a disgusting Human Centipede punchline, he only spent a few seconds on what seemed to set him off: a couple of very light jabs from new CNN chief Jeff Zucker at luncheon speech on Monday. 

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Before Stewart lashed into CNN's lamentable, easily mockable faulty news reporting (in which they were not alone: the AP, Boston Globe, and Fox News all had to retract reports about either an arrest  or suspect in custody) started with this curious false-humble line: "As one of their competitors, I guess we just get a little jealous." That was reference to a report published by PBS Mediashift on Wednesday about Zucker's luncheon at the Atlanta Press Club on Monday, just before the Boston bombing, when he said, in the course of defending his network's dedication to the "poop cruise" story: "Just because Jon Stewart makes fun of it doesn't mean he's right." The article, by Terri Thornton, then paraphrased Zucker: "He attributed criticism of the network's coverage of the stalled Carnival Cruise ship Triumph to jealous competitors. ... And yes, he added, he considers The Daily Show a competitor." 

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It was pretty tame stuff. Especially considering everything The Daily Show has said about CNN, even before last night's fecal matter mention. Zucker shouldn't take it too personally: bashing CNN has been one of Stewart's staples for the 14 years he's hosted The Daily Show. Here's a classic clip from when Stewart could still go on air with a cigarette in his hand. As the "fake news" guy who can spin truth out of the ridiculous, Stewart has always been a foil to the flummoxed, hidebound, and hackneyed anchors and pundits who crowd TV news. What's kept Stewart's criticism from becoming a lazy cliché of his own has been something that he and the journalists he mocks share: they deeply care about what the American public should care about. Last night, though it seemed petty and personal — all the more so because it didn't have to be. 

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Jon Stewart has never been shy about how loathing for the cable news network, and while Wednesday was one of the lowest moments for CNN, Stewart's skewering was full of poop jokes (but not poop cruise jokes) and, in the follow up, with correspondents John Oliver and Jessica Williams, some anal sex jokes. There were some laughs, sure, but not really any insight. There was no signs of the guy who, in a meeting witnessed by a New York reporter, responded to a bunch of nut-kicking jokes pitches with, "That’s funny stuff. But let’s get a sense of where the media is trying to build the narrative and where the story lines are going to go.” 

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The narrative of Stewart's hatred for CNN and, as he sees it, the corrosive effect on American discourse is well established by now. (There are 17 pages of videos tagged CNN on The Daily Show's website.) Even before he maybe caused the cancelation of Crossfire in 2004, he was picking on CNN on its 20th anniversary, calling them out for low ratings. 

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In 2010 he appeared on a CNN show, Larry King Live, and bashed the network. King asked him: "Why do you pick on CNN so much?" He replied: "You're terrible." He went on: "The idea that CNN has his infrastructure, they have all this reach, they have all this technology, and it sometimes feels squandered. Squandered opportunity." That's a common theme of his criticism: CNN has the resources to do great things and they don't. In recent years he's blasted CNN for fact-checking SNL, their "Stream Team," their Whitney Houston death coverage, their Diamond Jubilee coverage. Earlier this year, CNN's round-the-clock "poop cruise" reporting gave Stewart something to work with. And just this month, before last night's segment, he took on Zucker's plans for the network in their entirety. That segment was too much for Steve Krakauer, a senior digital producer at CNN, after watching Stewart favorably cite CNN coverage in his following segment to call for reforming  the Department of Veterans Affairs: 

Jon Stewart spends 1st segment making fun of CNN, then uses CNN reporting as centerpiece of next segment. America's least-ombuds-ed pundit.

— Steve Krakauer (@SteveKrak) April 5, 2013

And it's true, of course, that Stewart as a symbiotic relationship with CNN (and Fox and MSNBC and CSPAN, for that matter). That's not to say that CNN should be free from mockery. But the mockery needs a point, a point beyond being pissed off by a few words made by cable network chief.

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