Last night, Jon Stewart addressed the fact check of his claim that Fox News viewers are consistently the most misinformed about politics compared to the audiences of other news networks and shows– in “every poll,” he said. Though much of the conservative blogosphere went to town on that bunk claim right away, the backlash against Stewart found a rallying point in an article by the normally left-leaning Politifact:
So we have three Pew studies that superficially rank Fox viewers low on the well-informed list, but in several of the surveys, Fox isn’t the lowest, and other general-interest media outlets — such as network news shows, network morning shows and even the other cable news networks — often score similarly low. Meanwhile, particular Fox shows — such as The O’Reilly Factor and Sean Hannity’s show — actually score consistently well, occasionally even outpacing Stewart’s own audience.
Meanwhile, the other set of knowledge surveys, from worldpublicopinion.org, offer mixed support for Stewart. The 2003 survey strikes us as pretty solid, but the 2010 survey has been critiqued for its methodology.
The way Stewart phrased the comment, it’s not enough to show a sliver of evidence that Fox News’ audience is ill-informed. The evidence needs to support the view that the data shows they are “consistently” misinformed — a term he used not once but three times. It’s simply not true that “every poll” shows that result. So we rate his claim False.
In short: “Yes, I lied, but look at how much Fox lies!”
The response is significant in two ways; first, Stewart’s subtly shifting the goalposts to cover the black eye this has given him. Minus a shred of context (such as “Who said these things on which program?” or “what are the criteria by which Politifact deems this a lie?” or “how frequently is Fox caught in a false statement that it doesn’t correct compared to other news networks?”), Stewart has quietly changed the conversation. Since he wasn’t in his element (constant brown-nosing) on Sunday, he slipped up and made a claim that could be refuted by statistics, so last night, given time to plan and after much ego massaging by his staff, Stewart could make safe, anecdotal charges against FNC as if they prove the same point as the lie he spat at Chris Wallace.
Second, his deflection reinforces the impressions we got from his recent incident with Steven Crowder:
1. Stewart is a coward. For those who aren’t aware of what I’m referring to, one of Stewart’s producers emailed Steven Crowder’s manager and literally said “we never book conservative pundits.” When Crowder made the message public, Stewart freaked out, and his producer intimidated Crowder’s manager until he severed ties with our fellow blogger for fear of being blacklisted. This wasn’t a move to save face; there was no more information to suppress; this was pure bullying. Crowder embarrassed Stewart, so Stewart tried to destroy an up-and-coming comic’s career.
To clarify his producer’s email remarks, he has conservative *pundits* on the show– suit-and-tie WASPs, dry political types who he knows will be on defense the whole time. He gets to own the debate by being the sole possessor of the Comedy card. If he dared to have a conservative comedian like Greg Gutfeld or Crowder, he might have someone who pushes back against him and beats him at his own game. He can’t let conservatives be funny in front of his audience; why, they might start believing crazy things, like conservatives can be funny! We see it in his recent interviews and debates with Bill O’Reilly; in an environment that Stewart can’t control, the Fox host gets to break this unspoken rule, taking witty, deadpan jabs at Stewart, himself, and the television culture in which they operate, much to the visible discontent of the Most Trusted Man in America. And that brings us right to our next point:
2. Stewart is incredibly thin-skinned. Any time someone goes on offense against him, Jon gets beyond indignant. We see it most clearly on his Sunday appearance; he’s practically snarling at Chris Wallace. Why? Because Wallace doesn’t treat him as the wizened statesman/hip cat persona the rest of the MSM has built up for him; Wallace treats him like this guy. Instead of going, “Oh, garsh, I guess my entire existence really is based around an organization designed solely for malevolent propaganda, and you’ve convinced me to do some soul-searching!”, Wallace challenges him to admit Fox is no worse than outlets like the New York Times. With the grace and poise of a college freshman, Stewart barks back his “consistently… every poll” nonsense. Because Wallace doesn’t automatically acknowledge him as the smartest guy in the room, he commits an unforced error, revealing that his hatred of Fox is an a priori prejudice, not an evidenced conclusion. And now he’s doing his best to tap dance around it with a number of anecdotes drawn from a multi-year period– a number we could match from a week’s worth of content from any other cable news network.
3. Stewart’s downfall will be his insistence that he’s not on the playing field. If we take just a smattering of the issues Stewart has covered in the past couple years– reasons for the Iraq war, waterboarding, 9/11 first responders, Stewart has gone full-on editorializing pundit multiple times, shoehorning the occasional sardonic joke into angry rants and gotcha-grasping interviews that would make Charlie Gibson vomit. Even progressive pundits see through it; he’s the only one with blinders big enough to deny the obvious. In an interview as fascinating as it is uncomfortable, Rachel Maddow spends 50 minutes trying to get him to admit that his schtick, on which she has shamelessly modeled her own schtick, is actually comparable to her schtick. Yet, by leveraging her undying admiration, Stewart pushes Maddow away again and again, going so far as to say outright, “we have no responsibility.”
He’s desperately trying to hold together the fantasy that his work exists in a vacuum devoid of any cultural significance– that whatever happens on his show stays on his show since he’s only on the sidelines– but the fantasy is falling apart faster than ever in the wake of this Fox interview; If he keeps it up much longer, he’s going to become the joke, like David Letterman has become to us (if you’re a Stewart fan, just switch out Letterman with Leno so you can understand that). And based on his response to the Politifact article about his Fox claim, we may look back at this whole affair as the moment that Jon Stewart officially jumped the shark.