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Comedian Jon Stewart took a shot at the media in general on Sunday morning, claiming that the press “does a terrible job at de-escalation” when it comes to hot-button political and societal issues and instead just seeks to “expose the conflict lines.”
Six years after leaving his iconic run as the host of The Daily Show, Stewart recently returned to television with a new (and far more serious) program, The Problem with Jon Stewart. Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union to promote the series, Stewart and anchor Jake Tapper engaged in a lengthy and in-depth discussion on the current state of politics and the media’s role in covering it.
Asserting that there’s a “debate in the Democratic Party about how to appeal to voters in 2022,” Tapper noted that there are “a lot of social issues getting a lot of attention.” Specifically, he named the teaching of so-called critical race theory and California recently passing a law requiring gender-neutral toy aisles in large retail stores as examples of cultural topics dominating the media landscape.
“Do you have concerns about how these debates are taking place?” Tapper questioned. “Obviously, I’m not talking about how they are depicted in right-wing media. Because it doesn’t matter what the Democrats do or liberals do for right-wing media to lie about it. There are a number of independent voters who might not understand what’s going on.”
Stewart, for his part, said “there are a lot of things a lot of people don’t understand” but that you cannot “govern to the lowest common denominator.” He then took issue with political media outlets framing major news stories through the lens of electoral politics.
“I saw a great headline in Politico as Afghanistan was descending into chaos in that final week. The headline in Politico—this is the top line headline, the one with the 40-point font, whatever it was—it said, ‘Why Afghanistan May Not Matter in the Midterms.’ And then the sub-headline was, ‘And Why It Might,’” Stewart said, prompting laughter from the CNN anchor.
“Well, you know, they have a point,” a smiling Tapper reacted.
(There doesn’t appear to be a Politico headline that exactly matches Stewart’s description, though there was one from August that framed the evacuation crisis through GOP midterm efforts. It is also possible Stewart mistook a Roll Call article headlined “How Afghanistan will (and won’t) matter in 2022 midterms” with Politico.)
“But that’s our journalism, right?” Stewart continued. “Isn’t that—how many times have you seen stories about the battle over masks, the Karen yelling in the store and the people throwing them out and all that? How many stories have we seen about the efficacy of masks or the why or the actual—there are some. But the overwhelming majority of stories seek to expose the conflict lines.”
Pushing back a bit, the State of the Union host asked Stewart if he thought this was “all about the media,” questioning him on whether “activists on the left risk alienating a culture instead of educating and then bringing people in.” The veteran comedian, however, said it’s not activists’ job to necessarily educate.
“I agree with you, I’m uncomfortable with certain activism that feels performative. A lot of times it’s not helpful,” Stewart acknowledged before adding: “But I don’t generally think that the problem in Democratic politics lies with activists. I just don’t think that that’s a fair assessment of what’s wrong with Democratic politics.”
Tapper then wondered aloud if the larger issue was that Democratic politicians fail to deliver for the people they were elected to represent, something that Stewart agreed with somewhat.
“I think that their ability sometimes to respond in kind with smart and competent programs is probably a bigger problem,” he responded.
In Stewart’s opinion, however, he thinks this is possibly one reason why a lot of the focus will shift back to topics that can quickly generate outrage, once again referencing the gender-neutral law in California.
“Honestly, but that law, who gives a shit?!” Stewart exclaimed. “Do you know what I mean? In terms of the importance of the running of California, the law—who’s it really gonna impact?”
Stewart went on to bring up singer Demi Lovato recently coming out as non-binary and asking to be referred by they/them pronouns, noting that somebody told him how upset this made them as it meant “things had gotten so out of hand.” Stewart, however, felt that outrage and coverage over the story were overblown because most people “don’t know Demi Lovato so you will never have to be in this situation” of using the proper pronoun.
“But in the media, that story is ubiquitous,” he sighed. “I think the media does a terrible job at de-escalation. And de-escalation is the antidote to all of this nonsense.”
Stewart concluded: “I don’t mean civility and I don’t mean nonpartisanship, I mean focusing on things that are more urgent and elemental in people’s lives, and really hammering away at those things. Rather than the purely emotional fault lines that occur in society.”