Jon Stewart gets out-Foxed

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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The Huffington Post headline proclaimed triumphantly, “Jon Stewart LIVE on Fox News, Tells Host ‘You’re Insane.’” Well yes, Jon Stewart did indeed say that to Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace at one point during their riveting discussion yesterday of media bias. But that headline doesn’t come close to capturing how the interview actually went down, and more accurately captures HuffPo’s wishful thinking that their hero would march into the Faux News Evil Empire and kick some serious butt. HuffPo didn’t get its wish. The rest of us, however, were treated to an excellent discussion in which Stewart eventually admitted that many longstanding conservative complaints about the media are valid.

As reported by Jeff Poor on these pages, Stewart admitted that there is “probably” a liberal bias in the media. He admitted that the majority of people working in the media “probably” hold liberal viewpoints. He admitted that to some extent, conservatives are right that they have been “victims of a witch hunt.” He admitted that conservatives are called racists and other names “with an ease that I am uncomfortable with.” He admitted that conservatives have a “real right to be angry” about these things and to feel that they have been vilified. And he admitted that he himself has been guilty of some of these things.

I give Stewart props for eventually reaching the point where he could admit all of this. I’d have given him more props if he didn’t have to be dragged there kicking and screaming. The fact that Stewart eventually got there is a testament to Chris Wallace’s brilliant questioning and dogged refusal to let Stewart off the hook.

Wallace pressed Stewart on his assertion that Fox News is unique among major media organizations in promoting an ideological agenda. Stewart did allow that MSNBC is “attempting” to pursue a liberal agenda, as if to imply that MSNBC is somehow less nefarious than Fox because the former is merely “attempting” to be ideological. Stewart’s point would only make sense if MSNBC were somehow failing in its “attempt” to be ideological. With a primetime lineup that features Chris Matthews, Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, MSNBC’s “attempt” to be ideological has clearly been wildly successful.

I had given Stewart credit for lampooning the media’s wild goose chase through Sarah Palin’s emails. It turns out that I had given him too much credit. When pressed by Wallace, Stewart refused to admit that the targeting of Palin for an unprecedented fishing expedition was evidence of the media’s political bias. Stewart attempted to minimize the importance of the fiasco by calling the Palin emails “fluff.” He completely missed the point that the media had been salivating to find not “fluff” but damaging dirt on Palin, as if she were their political opponent.

At another point, Wallace played a clip of Stewart mimicking GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain in an exaggerated African-American accent. Stewart’s rant, in his best minstrel show voice, concluded with: “I am Herman Cain, and I do not like to read!”

Stewart seemed genuinely stung when Wallace jokingly asked him whether he was planning “a remake of Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Stewart defensively asked Wallace why he didn’t show the other voices that Stewart does on the show, such as his “New York voice” or his “Chinese guy voice.” Right, Jon. That side-splitting “Chinese guy voice” of yours is a great way to refute charges of racial insensitivity. That Stewart would make such a glaring unforced error shows how much Wallace had thrown him off his game.

It was rather surreal to see Stewart, whose bread and butter is ridiculing people by showing edited clips out of context, take umbrage at the use of his own clip (which was not taken out of context, by the way).

Stewart resorted to the type of transparent diversionary tactics that one trots out when one is losing an argument. “You can’t understand, because of the world you live in, that there is not a designed ideological agenda on my part to effect partisan change, because that’s the soup you swim in,” Stewart lectured Wallace. “It reminds me of, you know, in ideological regimes, they can’t understand that there is free media [in] other places because they receive marching orders.”

It was silly of Stewart to suggest that Wallace, whose professionalism Stewart himself had rightly praised several times during the interview, was so blinded by partisanship that he would be incapable of understanding Jon Stewart. You’re not the complex enigma that you think you are, Jon. Stewart’s analogy to the subjects of “ideological regimes,” which conjures images of indoctrinated North Korean peasants, was equally silly when applied to Wallace.

Stewart’s condescension was a pose of superiority typically used to mask feelings of inferiority. Stewart is usually a confident guy, but he was clearly losing confidence in his stubborn defense of the mainstream media. That’s why Stewart resorted to the “you can’t understand” tactic from junior high school: Since Wallace was incapable of understanding Stewart (yeah, right), Stewart was absolved of his responsibility to defend his statements with logic.

Stewart is good at making funny faces, which comes in handy when your arguments can’t pass the straight-face test. Stewart was angered by Wallace’s suggestion that Stewart was a political activist. Then what was that big rally about the weekend before the election, Jon — the one where liberal activists were bused in by the thousands?

By the end of the interview, Stewart finally admitted that the mainstream media “probably” had a liberal bias. However, he still clung to the notion that Fox News was worse than the others because, according to Stewart, the other outlets were not consciously pursuing ideological activism. Stewart apparently doesn’t read The Daily Caller, and hence has never heard of the Journolist.

But even if Stewart were right, so what? In the 2008 election, John McCain received about twice as much negative coverage as Barack Obama. Does it really matter whether this gross disparity was the result of conscious liberal activism rather than the media’s complete obliviousness to its own bias?

Perhaps Stewart “can’t understand” this because of the “soup he swims in.” More likely, though, Stewart is afraid to let go of the myth of Fox’s unique monstrosity because it’s such an important part of his act. And while Stewart insists that Wallace can’t understand him, perhaps Wallace understands something about Stewart that Stewart does not understand about himself: That Stewart’s resentment of Fox News is really resentment over the loss of the liberal monopoly on American media.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.