Why Does Jon Stewart Cower Before Power?

I have an editor at AlterNet who routinely puts me on the controversial path. He’s unleashed me on autism, tasers and much more. This time around, he asked me to look into The Daily Show, which has snarked truth to power since last century but has nevertheless displayed an unfortunate pattern of bowing down to power players when they show up across Jon Stewart’s desk. So I dug into my memory banks and the consensual knowledge base of the internet and found seven unlucky moments that Stewart blew it, and even admitted it. The results appeared on both AlterNet and Salon, who created a sensational headline that had me worried but entertained all the same.

Jon Stewart has changed late-night television for the smarter, but The Daily Show’s satire kingpin has a way of cowering before powerful people when they come on his set for interviews, not asking the tough questions. It’s a stark contrast from his hard-hitting comedy sketches and reviews of the day’s news, where Stewart and his coterie of correspondents can really bare their fangs. Stewart’s guests on set are often the same people he lampoons, but something changes when they are in the room…easy targets get kid gloves. Here are seven of Stewart’s weakest interviews.

7. Paula Broadwell: He had her, right there in front of him, the woman who helped bring “King” David Petraeus’ military and political career to an ignominious end. But he too, like the mainstream media, seemed too busy having sex with Petraeus’ exalted mythology. Sure, that legend was obviously more full of holes than the Bush administration’s shifting rationales for bombing Iraq, but Stewart and Broadwell’s awkward interview was nevertheless well-stocked with the same mini-legends making their way through the mainstream media’s complicit coverage of Petraeus’ bankrolled rise: His insane work ethic and meteoric popularity, his fairytale meeting with Broadwell and their, ahem, scholarly research for her unfortunately titled book All In.

Stewart played along with the CIA’s well-circulated interview script, making for a historically embarrassing bow-down and sadly missed opportunity. “That was the most awesome sellout I’ve ever seen in my life,” Stewart said, when Broadwell finally did mention her husband, whom she argued just wants her to sell more books. ” I’m the worst journalist in the world,” he said later about the Broadwell interview.

6. John Yoo: Torture memo pimp to the Bush presidency John Yoo isn’t exactly an intimidating physical or even intellectual presence. His perverse interpretation of constitutional law and justice helped grant legitimacy and immunity for everything from America’s sadistic post-9/11 torture to its continuing global civil liberties abuses at home and abroad. But when Stewart had him in the studio, he folded and later lamented that Yoo “slipped through my fingers. It was like interviewing sand.” Some have claimed Stewart had no chance at nailing down a slippery lawyer like Yoo, who can simply pin his infamous legal capitulations to the Bush administration onto the Constitution. But Stewart could’ve at least asked Yoo why he felt no crisis of conscience in doing so, rather than ask what his law students thought about his trip to The Daily Show.

5. Condoleezza Rice: Speaking of Bush administration lightweights, Stewart also played soft and nice with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2010, when she visited The Daily Show to hawk her memoir Extraordinary Ordinary People. Rather than spending time taking Rice to task for her complicity in screwing ordinary people throughout Bush’s two terrorizing terms, Stewart sounded “starstruck,” as The Baffler complained. He asked lightweight icebreakers like, “What does the burden feel like on a day-to-day basis, agree or disagree with the policy?” and plugged Extraordinary Ordinary People with praise like, “I’m telling you, you gotta pick up [Rice’s book] about a patriotic American who is, if I may, doing the best that…” without even being able to finish. Rice has been on The Daily Show a few times, none of them memorable.

4. Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear: It was an amazing accomplishment for two titans of late-night satire: The National Mall, packed with 200,000 people, days before the 2010 midterm elections. But instead of using that bully pulpit to chart a realistic path forward for a political landscape notable for its callous right-wing intransigence, Stewart and Stephen Colbert instead threw up a variety show marked by vacant rhetoric. What happened after that the rally put the lie to the rally’s naive hope: Not only are Democrats and Republicans fighting each other more than before, but with a congressional favorability rating of nine percent, their frustrated citizenry has pretty much given up on them entirely. By using a video of cars merging into Holland Tunnel as a lame visual aid for bipartisan comity, Stewart and Colbert turned a patriotic political opportunity into corporate marketing for their shows and personas. “If you’re going to have a rally where hundreds of thousands of people show up, you might as well go ahead and make it about something,” Bill Maher ranted.

3. The Wrong Cheney: When Stewart interviewed The Dick’s wife, Lynne Cheney in 2007, he sabotaged himself right off the bat. “This is very uncomfortable,” he bombed, “only because you know what? Here’s the thing: You’re not your husband, and it’s not fair to challenge you on things that aren’t you.” Right, like Cheney’s wife was on The Daily Show only to promote her sappy memoir Blue Skies, No Fences and not cheerlead her husband’s corrupt administration, which she did as well. Stewart should have gone for broke after Cheney gave Stewart a Darth Vader doll at the interview’s outset.

2. The Drone Zone: The conscientious upstarts at CodePink recently gave Stewart a vagina, and even dressed him in a pink T-shirt, for bringing more public scrutiny and satire to CIA directorate nominee John Brennan’s unhealthy love of asymmetrical, inaccurate drone warfare. But Stewart faltered when he had a chance to dig deeper into privacy and sovereignty invasions and controversies with Melissa “Missy” Cummings, the MIT professor of aeronautics who was pimping PBS’ Rise of the Drones, which received underwriting from Lockheed Martin and the Koch brothers.

“Is it easier to lose sight of its killing power, given the distance that you have from it?” was the furthest he could stumble down Rise of the Drones’ slippery slope, eliciting scorn from both progressives as well as conservatives at Stanford’s millennial-minded PolicyMic, which counts none other than Condi Rice as one of its “thought leaders.” Stewart uncritically chilled as Cummings droned on about how drones are making war safer, despite the fact that they arguably kill as many if not more civilians than actual “militants,” who themselves aren’t even verifiable. Clusterfuck city.

1. Science For Dummies: What’s great about Stewart is his ability to casually navigate the mediator’s common ground. But he sometimes uses that middle way as an exit route from major stresses needing better analysis, which is why Stewart’s interview with theologian Marilynne Robinson caught recent flak. “I’ve always been fascinated that, the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith,” he argued, although the opposite is true. Finding too much faith in science when he could have spotlit more science inspired particularly nerdy blowback from Discover, whose awesomely titled “Jon Stewart Doesn’t Understand How Science Works Even a Little Bit” took him to task for mashing his antimatter and dark matter. It sounds like nitpicking, until you realize that astronomy explains how planets live and die, whereas we invented God to process the existential horror that beings on those planets live and die according to astronomical whim. No one’s perfect, but arguing in our technocratic 21st century that science you can’t see is just more faith-based invention is like pointlessly throwing sense and reason down a black hole. And we’ve already got Fox News for that.



Truthiness and Consequences

Certain elements of the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight terminaton were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter? An encouraging question under the circumstances, if you didn’t think about it too long, and there was no time to think right now. The basic difference between a crash and a crash landing seemed to be that you could sensibly prepare for a crash landing, which is exactly what they were trying to do. The news spread through the plane, the term was repeated in row after row. ‘Crash landing, crash landing.’ They saw how easy it was, by adding one word, to maintain a grip on the future, to extend it in consciousness if not in actual fact…Suddenly, the engines restarted. Just like that. Power, stability, control. — Don DeLillo, White Noise

There are times when you have to leap into the clusterfuck, and then there are times when you just have to sit back and enjoy the delicious ironies of life. Which is another way of saying that I wasn’t late to the blogger party on Stephen Colbert’s in-person smackdown of the president of the most powerful country on Earth (for now, anyway, but probably not for long). Rather, I was soaking up the unrestrained love and the hate, and searching for the type of hyperreal hilarity that once belonged to the finest show on television — Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, if you must know — but now almost wholly belongs to one of that show’s flawless talents and his new show, an equally hyperreal laugher on Comedy Central.

Like his soon-to-be-retired Birdman doppleganger Phil Ken Sebben (Falcon Seven, for the cartoon nerds in the audience), Stephen Colbert’s blowhard doppleganger has an unquenchable penchant, like the president he skewered, for ignorance and zealotry in equal measure. And he’s decided that the most productive way to transmit that ignorance is through language. Phil Ken Sebben is prone to making ludicrous statements, punctuated by a hearty “Ha Ha!” — which is then followed by a repeat of said statement’s core content. (My favorite? “Dangly parts.”)

Meanwhile, Colbert’s show self-consciously abuses the limits of language to prove that, in the end, reality can take a backseat to fantasy when the right words are weaponized for action. This practice is most capably illustrated in Colbert’s “The Word” segment, where terms and phrases are ripped out of their context, destroyed, refashioned as slogans or propaganda, dissected and ridiculed (by Colbert’s own right-screen commentator, yet another metafictional element of his vertiginous show), before being then resituated once again in their reality-based meanings, courtesy of the right-screen textual commentator.

Colbert’s linguistic satire, of course, reached its apotheosis at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a back-slapping orgy of consensual hallucination that, to mangle Pink Floyd’s hyperpolitical missile “Pigs,” is “really a laugh/But [it’s] really a cry.” For so long, the line between fake news of Colbert and Jon Stewart’s invention and the “real” news of CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, The Drudge Report — Christ, this fucking list goes on forever! — has been inverted to the extreme. That is, while the “real” news media have fed the American people a steady diet of bullshit built equally by the Bush administration, think-tanks (always a handy repository for those who lost their virginity in their 20s), and a Republican party bursting at the seam with haters of every stripe, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — “That’s French, bitch!” — have been answering the late John Lennon’s clarion call, “Gimme Some Truth.” Though Lennon died too early to see those very “short-haired, yellow-bellied, son[s] of Tricky Dicky” stick around to goose the same, stupor-stoned populace into unnecessary war and wiretapping, Stewart and Colbert have been searching (and outing) the truth — the reality beneath the Bush administration’s “real” — with a vengeance.