Jon Stewart: MSM’s Last McCain-Lover?

Josh Marshall’s TPM has another entry in its “Tire-Swing Watch” — a running tally of media members once enchanted with John McCain who have finally quit giving him the benefit of the doubt. Today’s disenchanted former fan is The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, whose column is well worth checking out. It seems McCain’s extraordinarily dishonest campaign has not only caused Marcus to question his “Maverick” bona fides, it has emboldened her to utter what is, in the MainStream Media world, the ultimate heresy: “balance” does not equal fairness.

This may be a Copernicus moment: a challenge to conventional wisdom that could, if enough other media members pick up on it, or stumble upon it themselves (as Galileo did with heliocentrism), could fundamentally change their picture of the universe — and thus, the picture they present to the public.

This would be a welcome change. The practice of reporting every devious political tactic with the qualifier, “both sides do it” attached has nothing to do with fairness or thoroughness, and everything to do with preempting partisan critics who will cry “Bias!” any time their candidate is caught.

Striving for “balance” at the expense of fairness is not only lazy and cowardly, it is its own kind of lie. Imagine an umpire who felt compelled to call an equal number of strikes and balls for both sides’ pitchers, rather than trying to maintain a consistent strike zone. That’s not fair, but it is “balanced.”

Conservatives have been extraordinarily successful in exploiting the media’s devotion to this false standard. Any time a foul is called on one of their players, they demand the opposing side be penalized, as well. John McCain knows he can get away with lying, because journalists won’t report it without adding the caveat that “both sides have exaggerated.” Even if they have to exaggerate to make that case.

Marcus, at least, seems to have realized that the McCain campaign has been using the media’s devotion to “balance” to get away with murder:

All campaigns fall short, but some fall far shorter than others. And it is a phony evenhandedness, comfortable for journalists but ultimately misleading, that equates these failures without measuring the grossness of their deviation from the standard of decency.

In the 2008 race, and especially in the past few weeks, the imbalance has become unnervingly stark. Ideological differences aside, John McCain‘s campaign has been more dishonest, more unfair, more — to use a word that resonates with McCain — dishonorable than Barack Obama’s.

Topical comedy has its own version of the “balance” paradigm, which is usually invoked under the “equal-opportunity offender” heading. The idea is to be “equally hard” on “both sides” — to tell about the same number of jokes about the Republican and the Democrat, and to depict both as equally mockable and unworthy.

The Daily Show doesn’t take the same easy, apolitical path Leno and the other network comics do. It doesn’t focus on personal quirks — so much easier to “balance” than policy differences–at the expense of everything else. And during the Bush years, Stewart and company’s pro forma attempts at “balance” have rarely gotten in the way of a full-throated attack on an administration they clearly despise.

But now that the Bush years are finally, finally ending, “balance” is threatening to turn The Daily Show into a comedic version of the MSM newscasts it mocks. As I have written before, this is partly a byproduct of the show’s conceptual limitations: Stewart is an anchorman, and bound, to a certain extent, to act like one. But I’m convinced there is something else at play: Stewart still really likes John McCain.

Certainly The Daily Show has criticized McCain, and will continue to do so. But considering the ammunition he’s giving them, the extent to which they seem to be holding their fire strikes me as remarkable. Consider last night’s show.

The campaign story of the day was the way in which both candidates responded to the latest dire news from Wall Street. And while neither McCain nor Obama hit a home run, McCain made a pretty major error, insisting in a Today Show interview that despite the impending collapse of the financial sector that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

For his part, Obama gave a speech decrying the deregulatory mania — embraced by McCain, and enabled, in no small part, by his erstwhile chief economic adviser Phil Gump Graham — that created this mess. Though short on specific prescriptions, it was, as Ezra Klein points out, a substantive response.

Stewart’s response? Not so much. Rather than zero in on McCain’s gaffe — the kind of thing you’d expect them to run all the way down field (yes, I’ve switched from baseball to football metaphors now) — The Daily Show took the lamest, “both sides are bad” approach imaginable, editing the most general parts of Obama’s speech and McCain’s backpedaling, post-gaffe speech, into a “Candidate’s Generic-Off.”

Maybe they’ll hit harder tonight, who knows. But this isn’t the only high McCain fastball they’ve let by (back to baseball — fall is so confusing!). And the taped intro TDS used during their week at the GOP convention was so gentle (I believe the voiceover copy asked, “can a war hero undo a mess he himself helped create?”) as to seem almost reverent.

Ruth Marcus has jumped off the Straight Talk Express. So have Joe Klein, Andrew Sullivan, and Richard Cohen. Chris Matthews is still telling himself that McCain’s campaign must be doing all these terrible things behind the candidate’s back, somehow, but even he sees something is amiss. Jon Stewart is still bending over backward for ol’ McMaverick.

That’s what I see, anyway. It’s not dissimilar to his continuing loyalty to Dennis Miller, an old colleague and mentor who is not only no longer funny, but has become a paid endorser of the people and policies Stewart clearly finds repellent. The last time Miller was on TDS, Stewart fake-laughed so much I thought the stagehands were going to have to wheel out an oxygen tank. On an interpersonal level, I can’t help but admire that kind of devotion. But when those feelings are attached to a politician, that’s a real problem for a satirist.


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2 Responses to “Jon Stewart: MSM’s Last McCain-Lover?”

  1. kolchak33 Says:

    Rather than attack specifics, they decided to focus on how neither candidate is giving any real plans to help the economy, and on that front I think TDS’s piece was effective.

  2. WWJSD? (What Will Jon Stewart Do?) « Satired Says:

    […] given my area of specialization, the narrow interests of this blog, and a subject I addressed in a previous post, I’ll be watching for Jon Stewart’s reaction. Will The Daily Show call McCain on his […]

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