Dan Drezner has written a persuasive post on why Jon Stewart was wrong to condemn Crossfire, the late and mostly unlamented TV debate series.
As inane as the crosstalk shows might have been, one of their strengths was that they had people with different ideological and political perspectives talking to (and sometimes past) each other. You could argue that the level of discourse was pretty simplistic and crude — but at least it was an attempt at cross-ideological debate. People from different ideological stripes watched the same show and heard the same arguments. Nowadays, if you’re looking for that kind of exchange, you either have to fast all week until the Sunday morning talk shows, or go visit bloggingheads.
Instead of Crossfire-style shows on cable news, you now have content like Hannity, Glenn Beck, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, etc. These programs have no cross-ideological debate. Instead, you have hosts on both the left and the right outbidding each other to see who can be the most batsh**t insane ideologically pure. These shows attract audiences sympathetic to the host’s political beliefs, and the content of these shows help viewers to fortify their own ideological bunkers to the point where no amount of truth is going to penetrate their worldviews.
At the time, I was mainly bothered by Jon Stewart’s self-righteousness. While the writers and producers of The Daily Show are clearly tremendously talented, it has long been clear that Stewart’s gift mainly lies in connecting with the prejudices of his audience. (Stephen Colbert, in contrast, strikes me as a brilliant performer, as evidenced by the manic intensity of The Colbert Report and his supporting role in Strangers with Candy, not a series I’d describe as family-friendly.) To that end, he veers between lecturing the public and, when it suits, retreating into the role of a jokester who is immune to criticism. The irony of his “hurting America” remarks is that, as Drezner suggests, Stewart helped accelerate the death of cross-ideological debate and the rise of contempt-driven mono-ideological programming.
That said, I have faith in the marketplace.