Walter Cronkite’s passing away is an occassion for remembrance of a storied career and a true giant of journalism. It is not, however, the end of an era – the era of men like Cronkite ended a long time ago. While the media is engaged in a (well-deserved) hagiography about Cronkite’s career and influence, it should be noted that conservatives are saying good riddance. Conservatives still blame him for his comment about the Vietnam War, which famously caused President Johnson to remark, “If we’ve lost Walter Cronkite, we’ve lost America” in the bid to maintain public support. Their argument against Cronkite and his peers was that they held the keys to public opinion; but what conservatives fail to understand is that Cronkite did not dictate opinion, he reflected it.
Cronkite was not an elite sitting upon Olympus but rather an ordinary person whom the average man could relate to, and his opinion and perspective carried weight because he was in many ways the surrogate for the average man. Cronkite went to Vietnam in person and came back and talked about what he saw, and it was the perspective not of a President or a General but rather that of a citizen, to whom we could all relate. The idea of journalists as trusted purveyors of fact is largely over, with the rise of the professional pundit class and news channels like Fox or MSNBC that blend bias and agenda into reporting with an eye on ratings rather than social responsibility.
The irony of this is that the pundit class – who peddle opinion rather than factual, edited reporting – actually think of themselves as doing a public service on par with what Cronkite’s generation performed. This conceit was ruthlessly punctured by Jon Stewart, on his now-infamous appearance a few years ago on CNN’s Crossfire. If you haven’t see the clip, it’s below (transcript). It’s important to realize however that we can’t go back – the age of new media is here and from now on, each of us has the responsibility to beour own personal Cronkite. And maybe it is better that way.
Crossfire featuring Jon Stewart:
UPDATE – TIME magazine ran an online poll about which newscaster America trusted most n the post-Cronkite era. Stewart dominates, which I suspect may be discomfitting to him, since he doesnt want to be a “newscaster”. In some ways his protestations are futile, in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh’s claims to just be an “entertainer” rather than in actuality the Republican Don are meaningless.
PAUL BEGALA: We have noticed.
STEWART: And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you that I don’t — it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.
TUCKER CARLSON: But in its defense…
STEWART: So I wanted to come here today and say…
STEWART: Here’s just what I wanted to tell you guys.
STEWART: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.
BEGALA: OK. Now
STEWART: And come work for us, because we, as the people…
CARLSON: How do you pay?
STEWART: The people — not well.
BEGALA: Better than CNN, I’m sure.
STEWART: But you can sleep at night.
STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.
BEGALA: By beating up on them? You just said we’re too rough on them when they make mistakes.
STEWART: No, no, no, you’re not too rough on them. You’re part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks.
CARLSON: Wait, Jon, let me tell you something valuable that I think we do that I’d like to see you…
STEWART: Something valuable?
STEWART: I would like to hear it.
CARLSON: And I’ll tell you.
When politicians come on…
CARLSON: It’s nice to get them to try and answer the question. And in order to do that, we try and ask them pointed questions. I want to contrast our questions with some questions you asked John Kerry recently.
CARLSON: … up on the screen.
STEWART: If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.
CARLSON: No, no, no, here’s the point.
STEWART: If that’s your goal.
CARLSON: It’s not.
STEWART: I wouldn’t aim for us. I’d aim for “Seinfeld.” That’s a very good show.
CARLSON: Kerry won’t come on this show. He will come on your show.
CARLSON: Let me suggest why he wants to come on your show.
STEWART: Well, we have civilized discourse.
CARLSON: Well, here’s an example of the civilized discourse.
Here are three of the questions you asked John Kerry.
CARLSON: You have a chance to interview the Democratic nominee. You asked him questions such as — quote — “How are you holding up? Is it hard not to take the attacks personally?”
CARLSON: “Have you ever flip-flopped?” et cetera, et cetera.
CARLSON: Didn’t you feel like — you got the chance to interview the guy. Why not ask him a real question, instead of just suck up to him?
STEWART: Yes. “How are you holding up?” is a real suck-up. And I actually giving him a hot stone massage as we were doing it.
CARLSON: It sounded that way. It did.
STEWART: You know, it’s interesting to hear you talk about my responsibility.
CARLSON: I felt the sparks between you.
STEWART: I didn’t realize that — and maybe this explains quite a bit.
CARLSON: No, the opportunity to…
STEWART: … is that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.
STEWART: So what I would suggest is, when you talk about you’re holding politicians’ feet to fire, I think that’s disingenuous. I think you’re…
CARLSON: “How are you holding up?” I mean, come on.
STEWART: No, no, no. But my role isn’t, I don’t think…
CARLSON: But you can ask him a real question, don’t you think, instead of saying…
STEWART: I don’t think I have to. By the way, I also asked him, “Were you in Cambodia?” But I didn’t really care.
STEWART: Because I don’t care, because I think it’s stupid.
CARLSON: I can tell.
STEWART: But my point is this. If your idea of confronting me is that I don’t ask hard-hitting enough news questions, we’re in bad shape, fellows. [LAUGHTER]
CARLSON: We’re here to love you, not confront you.
CARLSON: We’re here to be nice.
STEWART: No, no, no, but what I’m saying is this. I’m not. I’m here to confront you, because we need help from the media and they’re hurting us. And it’s — the idea is…
BEGALA: Let me get this straight. If the indictment is — if the indictment is — and I have seen you say this — that…
BEGALA: And that CROSSFIRE reduces everything, as I said in the intro, to left, right, black, white.
BEGALA: Well, it’s because, see, we’re a debate show.
STEWART: No, no, no, no, that would be great.
BEGALA: It’s like saying The Weather Channel reduces everything to a storm front.
STEWART: I would love to see a debate show.
BEGALA: We’re 30 minutes in a 24-hour day where we have each side on, as best we can get them, and have them fight it out.
STEWART: No, no, no, no, that would be great. To do a debate would be great. But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.
CARLSON: Jon, Jon, Jon, I’m sorry. I think you’re a good comedian. I think your lectures are boring.
CARLSON: Let me ask you a question on the news.
STEWART: Now, this is theater. It’s obvious. How old are you?
STEWART: And you wear a bow tie.
CARLSON: Yes, I do. I do.
STEWART: So this is…
CARLSON: I know. I know. I know. You’re a…
STEWART: So this is theater.
CARLSON: Now, let me just…
CARLSON: Now, come on.
STEWART: Now, listen, I’m not suggesting that you’re not a smart guy, because those are not easy to tie.
CARLSON: They’re difficult.
STEWART: But the thing is that this — you’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great.
BEGALA: We do, do…
STEWART: It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. And I will tell you why I know it.
CARLSON: You had John Kerry on your show and you sniff his throne and you’re accusing us of partisan hackery?
CARLSON: You’ve got to be kidding me. He comes on and you…
STEWART: You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.
STEWART: What is wrong with you?
[APPLAUSE] CARLSON: Well, I’m just saying, there’s no reason for you — when you have this marvelous opportunity not to be the guy’s butt boy, to go ahead and be his butt boy. Come on. It’s embarrassing.
STEWART: I was absolutely his butt boy. I was so far — you would not believe what he ate two weeks ago.
STEWART: You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.
CARLSON: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.
STEWART: You need to go to one.
The thing that I want to say is, when you have people on for just knee-jerk, reactionary talk…
CARLSON: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.
STEWART: No. No. I’m not going to be your monkey.
BEGALA: Go ahead. Go ahead.
STEWART: I watch your show every day. And it kills me.
CARLSON: I can tell you love it.
STEWART: It’s so — oh, it’s so painful to watch.
STEWART: You know, because we need what you do. This is such a great opportunity you have here to actually get politicians off of their marketing and strategy.
CARLSON: Is this really Jon Stewart? What is this, anyway?
STEWART: Yes, it’s someone who watches your show and cannot take it anymore.
STEWART: I just can’t.
CARLSON: What’s it like to have dinner with you? It must be excruciating. Do you like lecture people like this or do you come over to their house and sit and lecture them; they’re not doing the right thing, that they’re missing their opportunities, evading their responsibilities?
STEWART: If I think they are.
CARLSON: I wouldn’t want to eat with you, man. That’s horrible.
STEWART: I know. And you won’t. But the thing I want to get to…
BEGALA: We did promise naked pictures of the Supreme Court justices.
CARLSON: Yes, we did. Let’s get to those.
BEGALA: They’re in this book, which is a very funny book.
STEWART: Why can’t we just talk — please, I beg of you guys, please.
CARLSON: I think you watch too much CROSSFIRE.
We’re going to take a quick break.
STEWART: No, no, no, please.
CARLSON: No, no, hold on. We’ve got commercials.
STEWART: Please. Please stop.
CARLSON: Next, Jon Stewart in the “Rapid Fire.”
STEWART: Please stop.
STEWART: So I don’t worry about it in that respect.
But let me ask you guys, again, a question, because we talked a little bit about, you’re actually doing honest debate and all that. But, after the debates, where do you guys head to right afterwards?
CARLSON: The men’s room.
STEWART: Right after that?
STEWART: Spin alley.
STEWART: No, spin alley.
BEGALA: What are you talking about? You mean at these debates?
STEWART: Yes. You go to spin alley, the place called spin alley. Now, don’t you think that, for people watching at home, that’s kind of a drag, that you’re literally walking to a place called deception lane?
STEWART: Like, it’s spin alley. It’s — don’t you see, that’s the issue I’m trying to talk to you guys…
BEGALA: No, I actually believe — I have a lot of friends who work for President Bush. I went to college with some of them.
CARLSON: Neither of us was ever in the spin room, actually.
BEGALA: No, I did — I went to do the Larry King show.
They actually believe what they’re saying. They want to persuade you. That’s what they’re trying to do by spinning. But I don’t doubt for a minute these people who work for President Bush, who I disagree with on everything, they believe that stuff, Jon. This is not a lie or a deception at all. They believe in him, just like I believe in my guy.
STEWART: I think they believe President Bush would do a better job.
And I believe the Kerry guys believe President Kerry would do a better job. But what I believe is, they’re not making honest arguments. So what they’re doing is, in their mind, the ends justify the means.
BEGALA: I don’t think so at all.
CARLSON: I do think you’re more fun on your show. Just my opinion.
CARLSON: OK, up next, Jon Stewart goes one on one with his fans…
STEWART: You know what’s interesting, though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.
CARLSON: Now, you’re getting into it. I like that.
CARLSON: OK. We’ll be right back.