What Jon Stewart Meant to Tell Rachel Maddow

I took to YouTube last night to record my interpretation of Jon Stewart's lengthy and at times halting interview with Rachel Maddow, in which two people who obviously like and respect each other--and watch each other's shows--struggled over what's right and wrong in cable news.

15 Nov 2010 9:34 am 27 Comments

I’m posting it here so we can have a debate in the comments.

I’ve never done one of these before, not sure I will again. I guess it turned out alright. But you tell me! (The clip is 15 minutes long. The original is here if you prefer to watch it at YouTube or want the embed code.)

Some additional material for those who care:

Here’s the full cut of the interview Rachel Maddow did with Jon Stewart on MSNBC, Nov. 11, 2010. It’s over an hour.

Bill Maher’s biting critique: “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.”

Jon Stewart’s commentary from a year ago called CNN Leaves if There. This is a must see if you have read any of my posts on the same subject, like He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User. As far as I can tell, not a soul at CNN understands what Stewart was talking about.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

Finally, an alert commenter at YouTube reminded me of this critical text for understanding what Stewart wants to see in cable news. CNN Hires Erick Erickson suggests what the network should be doing to get back in the game. “Exercise some editorial authority and integrity,” for example, and “lead a new generation of truth seekers on an anti-talking points jihad!” Instead it’s… hiring Erick Erickson of Redstate.com.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Hires Erick Erickson
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

The bar is open so comment freely on any of the above.


re: virtuous public square

Exactly. Isn’t that what Kovach & Rosenstiel mean by the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Stewart is fighting a good fight in that regard. But I’m wondering if the system is broken beyond repair. The “leave it there” sketch points clearly to a massive failure of craft and ethics.

All I hear are crickets chirping.

BTW, I like your video 🙂

someBrad says:

I think the rally and all the promotion leading up to it points out a fundamental problem: that false equivalence is very easy. Like you said, Stewart seemed genuinely stung by the reaction to the rally. I would add that he seemed surprised. From his reaction, I don’t think he saw what they were doing as false equivalence, but it’s just so easy to fall into those tropes.

Which is odd in a way, because one of the things the Daily Show usually does really well is being fair without worrying about balance. In this way it serves as a decent model for what I think Stewart wants to see from real news shows. For instance, they don’t spare anyone in their criticism, but don’t worry about spending equal time for both (or all) sides and, crucially, criticize different people and institutions for different things. Republicans are hypocritical and liars while Democrats are incompetent and lack resolve. I’d say one of the key components of their success in this regard is that they don’t rely on experts or analysts to interpret events (indeed, relentlessly hammering at that practice by satirizing it) and don’t invite people in to respond to their accusations. Even if CNN decided they wanted to stop “leaving it there” it’d be tough to have hosts call guests out as liars or bullshitters. Better to avoid guests in the first place.

Well, if you don’t point out any asymmetry and you do criticize both sides, you are going to leave the impression of equivalence. I think Stewart was relying on familiarity with his show, which certainly ridicules Fox more than any other player, to supply the antidote to false balance. But another way to put it is that he couldn’t figure out a way to get that asymmetry into the rally, so he just blew it off.

“Republicans are hypocritical and liars while Democrats are incompetent and lack resolve.” That puts it well.

By the way, Olbermann said on Twitter last night that his special comment Monday evening will be about “Koppel, False Equivalence, and his part in the real ‘death of news’.” He’s referring to Ted Koppel’s attack on the cable news channels, which Koppel said was part of a “pervasive ethos that eschews facts in favor of an idealized reality.”

Having a flu might be an excuse, but I think Stewart knows that he’s on thin ice, concerned that his false equivalency between MSNBC and Fox opens him to the criticism of engaging in “he said, she said” satire. He obviously likes and agrees with Maddow on a lot of issues, so he was trying to be careful, also mindful that O’Reilly invites him on his show occasionally. In other words, he was protecting his access.

Attending the Stewart/Colbert rally, I wondered if he would get serious. But when he did, it was a Rodney King moment. I had hopes that Stewart would be more than that, but I’m beginning to wonder if he fears being pigeonholed as a liberal partisan, though I can’t imagine a lot of red-blooded conservatives watch him. As a comic, it may be difficult for him to express himself without comedy as his coat of armor.

Fact is, I think the main problem with journalism today is that “objective” MSM feel that they can’t say, “That guy lied,” without being charged with bias and lose readers/viewers–and access.

Re your video effort, I would prefer the written narrative, if only a series of impressions without conclusion. If you continue, though, lose the glasses, or if you need them to refer to notes, turn off your monitor. And light your face better. And I prefer Chivas.

If I do any more videos of this type, I will be making changes. Possibly in the brand of scotch, but more likely in lighting.

Stephen Barnard (@socsavvy) says:

I think you were spot on to suggest that Stewart’s hope seemed to be for the injection of reason into MSM. A key paradox of the enlightenment project now seems to be that although science is indeed treated as virtuous by most, the knowledge that is its product all too often becomes nullified by he said, she said tactics. Reason in knowledge production does us little good if it is thrown out before it can be shared with the broader public(s).

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important topic. I know I very much enjoyed the video–both in form and content.

Re: the video

OK, so maybe some light. But don’t make it too slick. There’s a certain humanness to a raw web cam. The slicker you make it look, the slicker you will have to be in presentation.

Jay, I very much liked your video presentation (especially over Johnnie Walker Black 😉 ). Please consider making more. This has unique value outside of a blog post or tweet.

There is just no way to step into the political arena today, whether analysis or satire, without being slotted as on one side or the other. The Fox methodology, which Mahr pretty well nails, combined with Fox’s popularity, ensures this. This is one reason why Jay’s advocacy of a View From Somewhere makes sense – you are going to be put Somewhere anyway, may as well define yourself instead of waiting for others to label you.

Video is good, do more! (lighting & turning off the monitor).

As Jay noted, Stewart’s idea of cable news focusing on corruption is brilliant (are you listening, CNN?) If citizens’ concerns ever get true leverage, this would be the top priority. Puts me in mind of Sunday’s NYT oped, “Where Will the G.O.P. Go Digging?” – the second part, called INVESTIGATIONS WE COULD REALLY USE, at

Finally, since it’s relevant, I added my URL to this post – because citizen participation in punditry is the final media frontier.

I’m not sure why – but while you were saying “What I think John was trying to say …” I could almost hear him saying, “so you can read my mind now?” ;-).

Personally, I think his physical health had a lot to do with how this interview went – I believe he really did and didn’t want to be there. But that being said – it was almost as if there was a loss for what to do without conflict of some sort.

I tend to be cynical about the world today – about why we are getting the twisted funhouse version of the day versus what really matters – that it’s not by accident. That it may not be just ratings but something more ‘sinister’ (for lack of a better word). When you brought up the idea that he’s looking for a dichotomy between corruption/virtue – I felt the words would be more fantasy/reality. I believe MSM is doing exactly what they are meant to be doing – for if we got the truth I’m not sure we’d know what to do with it.

There was an article on the website Common Dreams – in the comments someone put forward the notion that railing against the Democrats ‘lack of backbone’ wasn’t seeing the ‘truth’ … that the Democrats were doing their job – as they put it “but from the Dems’ basic function in the political system, which is falsely posing as “opposition” while never actually opposing ANYTHING.” If MSM reported on the truth … we just might see through the illusion. This idea set me back on my heels for a moment – but then I started thinking about it … yes the Democrats have gotten a lot done – but only seemingly in spite of themselves … otherwise it all seems to be bowing to Right.

Look at John’s contemporaries – George Carlin, Bill Hicks … isn’t one of the roles of the jester that of ‘truth teller’? Has anyone here seen the George Carlin rant about our political ‘choices’? Our media is owned by a handful of corporations – they control the message. Our government is now almost openly owned by banks, oil/pharmaceutical/agribusiness companies. The internet is their biggest threat so is it no surprise that it is demonized – both blatantly and subtly – in all forms of the media.

Look – I’m not trying to put forward conspiracy theories – just observations that trouble me … and my cynical mind. I want to believe that the media can report the truth … but I’m not convinced … can we handle the truth? Have we been coddled for so long that we’d be shell-shocked by it? Have we been habituated to the manipulations of the world to the point where we’d just look and shrug? Or would we be like those in Plato’s cave when someone tried to tell them the truth – would we kill them?

*sigh* – why do I always start these when I should be going to bed? … So – it’s getting late and I actually should get off the computer now … but I’d like to leave a couple of links to give those of you reading this some idea where I’m coming from …

The first is a talk by Michael Parenti from the late 90’s titled “The Hidden Agenda of Mass Media” – someone posted an audio talk onto YouTube so I pulled them together into a playlist – http://www.youtube.com/user/xenophrenia#grid/user/0462A70C62B35A51

The second one is the first installment in a 4 part documentary called “The Century of the Self” about the influence of a Mr. Edward Bernays – the father of Public Relations: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6718420906413643126#

Goodnight everyone 😉 and thank you for indulging me.

I’m not sure why people take offense at what is clearly a guess– my attempt to piece together what I think Stewart may have meant. It’s pretty obvious in the video that I am talking about what I think he meant. I think I caution the viewer three times, “That’s not what he said, but…”

😉 … wasn’t offended Jay – just heard his voice say that in my head when you said that … (that’s what I thought a winking smiley face conveyed *sigh*).

I honestly believe the media has become part of the distraction … part of the covering anything but what is really going on and we’ve been noticing it more lately because reality has a way of showing up at the most inconvenient times. Jeff Jarvis didn’t like me referring to the people of this country as sheep – saying they have a mind of their own … which is why they keep paying more attention to things like Dancing With The Stars and Glee than the rich running away with the loot and the government acclimatizing us to borderline military surveillance. The rich know the poor will revolt eventually … just putting the protections in place.

Keith Olbermann made an interesting observation tonight – that the position we have to stand in in the scanners is eerily similar to the stance for party membership in the book 1984. He (Jeff) thinks it’s all because we’re paranoid about our bodies being seen and seems to totally overlook the erosion of our civil rights here. There are ways of getting people used to things and we do tend to ‘follow’ the crowd … it’s known in psychology. All attack attempts have come from OUTSIDE of the country and yet we are the ones treated as guilty until proven innocent. Doesn’t anyone think this is odd?

*sigh* … I’ll stop now … I’ve just been getting frustrated the way this whole thing is either gone overboard on or gets poopooed as though there is nothing wrong with this picture. It’s fantasy vs reality and I fear fantasy is winning … until reality is all there is left and we won’t know what happened….


I’d actually rather just have the audio. Mostly just because audio is much more “portable” than video. And honestly “seeing” a talking face (anyone’s) doesn’t help process what you are saying. I start focusing on the production of the video instead of the message. (And since we’re on the topic, the audio-quality of your podcast is terrible!)

Speaking of which: is there an audio-only version of the Stewart-Maddow talk?

I agree with most of what you said and in fact when I listened to the interview much of what Stewart was saying immediately brought you and Larry Lessig to mind. His media critique is fairly similar to things I’ve read on your blog. What’s more his stance toward the media is similar to the one you take. He’s an observer and critic of the media who is commenting on it in order to improve it. He sort of sees what he does as reporting on the reporting itself.

Stewart’s desire to switch to a Corruption vs Non-corruption centric debate sounded like it was right out of something I heard in one of Lessig’s presentations. Lessig wants to move beyond partisan divides and build a deeper movement for change. I think that’s what Stewart would like to see as well.

One particularly interesting point in the interview came at the very end and I’m not sure if other people caught onto it. Stewart says this:

“But what is important I think is the place that people come from. And it’s important to remember like when I do those things I do try to remember where I think people are coming from and I’m trying to do better in my life remembering that from even those that I REALLY disagree with.”

There are two interesting things about that statement. First is that it is a fairly explicit endorsement of the idea that “point of view” really matters and builds credibility. In the context of praising Rachel Maddow during this interview Stewart is clearly saying that Maddow’s show does represent much closer to the opposite of the “View From Nowhere” journalism which is the kind of journalism Stewart craves.

The second thing is, Stewart saying that there is a somewhat subtle jibe at his screaming Left wing critics. In effect he’s saying “when you guys came after me with all guns blazing you were forgetting where *I’m* coming from.” There are several other points in the interview where Stewart suggests a similar critique:
“False equivalence sounds a little like something that you’re doing as well”
“Anybody who has watched our show in any measure knows the special place Fox holds in our heart.”

He decidedly isn’t saying that he wasn’t wrong or inarticulate in what he said, but he *is* saying that the reaction to it was exceedingly disproportionate considering all the work he’s done over the years that no reasonable person can deny is very clearly in support of many of the very same things his critics care about most.

Critics like Maher seemed to be equating what Jon Stewart was doing with the very media he so often and so effectively critiques. To think that Jon Stewart is really equating MSNBC and Fox is to totally disregard the entire body of work Stewart has created on his show. That’s what Jon is shocked by in the vehemence of the criticism he’s received. For Stewart the rally was a culmination of his work covering 12 years of news, an event primarily to be attended by his most devoted fans, not an isolated event.

While it’s true that those particular segments might seem like they are the same “view from nowhere” journalism he’s criticized in the past, but Stewart wants his viewers to look a bit beneath the surface and see his underlying critique of the overall Climate of the News industry.

I think the problem Stewart is having is that he’s arguing against Left/Right tribalism in general but he’s arguing it to his own tribe, a tribe that’s itself become partly trained to attack “false equivalency” and “view from nowhere” politics partly due to his own influence. So they are attacking what they see as the false equivalency of msnbc and fox, but what Stewart was really trying to critique is the REAL equivalency of the increasingly tribalistic nature of the left and right factions that are being created.

But Stewart hit smack up against that tribal wall and it almost seemed like the Left was willing to kind of excommunicate him and his show from the tribe of the Left based on like maybe a grand total of 5 or 6 sentences that seemed to suggest the false equivalence. That seemed unfair to Stewart and that’s why I think he felt he had to show up and do this interview and speak directly about it.

And I think he’s right. I don’t agree with some of the things that Stewart said. There were things that seemed off and can be said to be unfair critiques especially the segments on left wing activists, but overall I don’t think there’s anything he said or did that warranted to level of vehement criticism traveling through the web or the sometimes cruel accusations that Stewart was just in it for the fame or the money.

In a certain sense the reaction to the Rally was sort of a case in point for Stewart. Stewart’s couple of “maybe this can be seen as a false equivalence” statements echoed through the Left wing media machine almost as loudly as really serious substantive critiques of people who are really in the wrong and are OFTEN in the wrong and who actually have the power to make real substantive changes that will deeply effect all of our lives. Why is that? The new media doesn’t have the capacity to control its font size. That’s why I think Stewart’s truly honest and intelligent voice is so important.

But I too was disturbed by his statements that he’s not “in the game”. There are limits to what he can do, that’s true. But in the new media world there just isn’t these divisions between news and entertainment, between satire and fact checking, between critic and filter, between sources and journalists. It’s all blurring together and creating much more complex and interesting structures for the future of news. In determining the shape of that new news system Stewart isn’t just “in the game”, I think he’s already been and will continue to be one of its most important players.

Thanks. A very intelligent and discerning response.

Listening to Stewart, I too was reminded of Larry Lessig and his shift from copyright and Creative Commons to fighting corruption, especially in Congress. By which he meant Congress as a whole, not a particular party. I think it is an apt comparison.

More commenters like Nephyo, please. Automatic thinking interruptors are the best defense against tribalistic echo chambers.

Changing the frame through which we view news is an idea I’ve been playing with in my head for quite some time. I thought the frame should be changed to people vs. corporations–but I’d go with Jon Stewart’s virtue vs. corruption. That works just as well.

However, in a world where the media is controlled by corporations, who is going to frame the view that way? And here is where I think Ted Koppel, though he may be old-school and rather clueless about The View From Nowhere working against truth, makes an excellent point in his recent Washington Post article (http://tinyurl.com/2uwz4bc). I am looking into the future and I don’t see myself being able to stick with MSNBC as my source of news. Or any news organization as they are currently structured–compelled to contribute to the bottom line, having to depend on ratings to the extent they now do. MSNBC, Fox–all they do is cover political news. They have no international coverage, very little decent financial, environmental or science news. Why? Because those topics don’t sell.

Who will finance the virtuous public square? It will have to be us.

james myers says:

1 get the camera away from the screen, unless you wish to look blue enough for Avatar. tTry some reflected light?

2 JS & RM are both far from home, but opportunisties presented themselves, they learned, grew into the role, -had time to learn. Maddow was *terrible* & ranting mad when she started on Air America. JS’s has been a very slow climb, his critique in Lewinsky days wasn’t nuanced or subtle.

Imagining who their role models must be, and I get Studs Turkle & Molly Ivans. I can’t guess who they think of.
They are floundering in the interview, trying to figure it & themselves out while they struggle to stay in front.

I don’t think this is the place for close reading.
Not yet. I look for another round in the future, I didn’t extact to much gold from this session of theirs.

Just managed to catch this. Good stuff. First off, Stewart dominated the interview–Maddow deferred way too much. At the same time, I agree with Nephyo that he’s earned the right to speak carelessly, have a rally without a purpose if he so chooses, and have an opportunity to recalibrate his message.

Whether it’s being articulate or not, I’m uncertain. Perhaps, given his perceived role on the sidelines, he’s unwilling or incapable of going beyond “corruption.” Thus he’s not trying vainly to express what it is he wants, but to not express it? Not saying corruption-virtue can’t be the axis, but who’s to say he doesn’t want to belt out the language of class-struggle? The haves vs. the have nots etc. That the media’s loyalties should be to the citizens, not the state, not the corp’s who finance their work (as if MSNBC is going to run with that). Perhaps he’s afraid that’s the rubicon, that he’s in the game for good if he strays that far–not to mention that the type of journalist that he seems to admire has little business in the business circa 2010. So why abandon comedy (a la Franken) for….

In any event, as hinted at above, I’m afraid it’s probably too late to reverse the corporate coup that’s taken place in America over the last decade. But as Jay says at the end, we’re all in the game–the more willing we are to storm the field/gates of the bastille, the better.

I got a lot of good advice on making the lighting and angle better, so the next one will be much more watchable. If there is a next one. 🙂

Actually, I was provoked by this post, so maybe that will be my second attempt.

Elwin Green says:

I did not watch the rally, or Bill Mahar’s takedown, or the Stewart/Maddow interview.

I did watch your video, and found it fascinating in its own right. The suggested Virtue/Corruption framing sounds like a much more interesting and useful approach to journalism than left/right, conservative/liberal blahblah.

I guess I’m weird, but I was *not* put off by the reflection off your glasses. You looked like a guy sitting in front of his computer, because you were…a guy sitting in front of his computer. The image reminded me of Keir Dullea in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” (“Where the hell’ja get that idea, Hal?”) and I thought it was a good visual trope.

I like the blue in the glasses and the slightly alien look, myself. But the feedback I have gotten suggests it’s a distraction– alien-ating.

someBrad says:

Didn’t Stewart go on Larry King and tell him what he wanted CNN to do?

In emphasizing the Journalism of Virtue & Corruption, Rosen overlooks Stewart’s passing reference to what one could call the Journalism of Interest Groups — I mean his contrast between left-vs-right tribes and parents-vs-non-parents.

Tyndall Report tries calling the former outlook small-r republican; the latter small-d democratic here. It is the culmination of a five-part discussion that starts here.

Billy Billington says:

Watching the two of them “spar” like they were on opposite sides was hilarious. What a joke.

Next we will have an hour long interview of Newt Gingrich vs George W. Bush.

What a joke.

Who said they were on opposite sides? Who thinks they are on opposite sides? When did either one of them say, “we’re on opposite sides.” Your observation is odd. You find hilarious something that didn’t happen.

I think this Jon Stewart interview with Bill Moyers from 2007 is very interesting in light of Jon Stewart’s latest interview with Rachel Maddow. It’s possible to compare 2007 Jon with 2010 Jon and there are definitely some differences:


For example, watch his interview with John McCain in 2007 where he asks him some real, no bullshit, pointed questions and gets McCain, as Moyers points out, very flustered and almost conceding defeat. Contrast that with Jon’s recent interviews of Tony Blair or Rick Perry where he pretty much softballs them and doesn’t seek to really put them on the spot. You have to think that some of the power and prestige of Stewart as he ages and becomes more popular, the beltway rules of engagement seem to be taking over. It’s simply impolite to put Tony Blair on the spot for aiding and abetting the Bush administration in its march to war and the lies and deceit that went with that campaign.

Also interestingly, he introduces the idea of the 24 hour news segment and how that bothers him. He doesn’t expand on it very much, like he does in the Maddow interview, but he kind of throws it out there as an offhand remark.

Stewart’s analysis of the Bush administration and how they operate (his thesis is that don’t mind being presented in public as total morons if that means they get to keep the details of their operation secret) is really insightful. Very very interesting interview, more so than the Maddow interview I would say.