Last night's discussion between Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart was something we haven't seen before -- a civil discussion between intelligent people of good will. I can't help but have the sense that Jon Stewart is telling liberals to take a knife to a gunfight -- for all that he's always bashing Barack Obama for doing exactly that.
Jon Stewart has been making the point for years that the nonstop cacophony of screeching on cable news over the last decade does nothing to address the problems we face -- and that's true. But what he seems to be asking Rachel Maddow and the other prime time hosts on MSNBC to do is unilaterally disarm and leave the screeching to Fox News, which he describes as "ideological" rather than "partisan", for all that the network pays almost all of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates as "correspondents" or show hosts and donates to groups like the Republican Governors Association.
Stewart's goal to turn the "You're a traitor!" "No, YOU'RE the traitor!" trading of accusations that takes the place of reasoned argument based on interpretation of evidence into the latter may be laudable. But there's a huge difference between calling George W. Bush a war criminal based on his now-admitted approval of torture (when torture is defined according to international law as a war crime) and Glenn Beck painting himself as an authoritative voice of fact and then doing a presentation which blames George Soros for everything Beck hates (George Soros being the favorite right-wing euphemism for "All-Powerful Jew"). And what Stewart seems to be saying is that since MSNBC still considers itself a news network, it should tone down the incendiary rhetoric and leave the screeching to Fox News. What he DOESN'T seem to realize is that not to answer the Fox News hosts' habit of pulling stuff out of their asses and then hammering it over and over again as fact (see also: the "Obama's trip to Asia is costing $200 million a day" lie) is to give it credence.
Is Stewart saying that we should just let accusations like that lie? Ask John Kerry how his assumption that the American people were too smart to believe the Swift Boaters lies worked out for him.
I understand why Jon Stewart, who has two young children and who devours cable news every day to obtain material for his show, has a vested interest in not seeing the outright evil of a president who takes a nation to war based on lies told to the citizenry. I understand him wanting to set Pol Pot as a benchmark, and create some arbitrary number of deaths that one has to cross to become truly "evil" or create distinctions between being a mass murderer of your own people vs. another country's. Because if you have children, and you believe that a president is capable of doing so, that a Congress that's supposed to provide checks and balances can blindly go along, and that the media will just regurgitate Defense Department talking points, then you will go insane projecting out the kind of country your children will inherit. It's much easier to believe that George W. Bush came from a position of goodwill and just made an itty bitty mistakey. The problem with that line of thinking is that you have to start believing that he made an awful lot of mistakeys for someone who cares about human life the way George Bush said he did.
I'm not sure what actually came out of last night's conversation, other than an increasing sense that for all his cynicism, Jon Stewart still retains the stubborn idea that the participants in the national shoutfest all come from a place of goodwill, that American politics is still a place where Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy can be great friends after disagreeing profoundly about politics. Fox News has made politics a blood sport, in which the opposition must not just be defeated, but pummelled to death and then having its corpse ass-raped repeatedly until it falls apart under the onslaught. Any media outlet worth its salt is going to combat Fox News' penchant for outright lies with demonstrable facts -- and even if you think Keith Olbermann is a self-iomportant bombastic jackass or that Rachel Maddow gets too passionate about the gay issues that affect her own life every day, the difference that Jon Stewart refuses to see between the MSNBC opinion show hosts and those at Fox is that at MSNBC, they don't just pull stuff out of their asses. Yes, it is opinion journalism over there at MSNBC, but at least they don't trot out a tagline like "fair and balanced" and expect people to believe it even in the face of a lineup that daily tells America that the president is a secret Muslim terrorist.