The Oct. 15 edition of CNN’s “Crossfire” was a memorable one, and not just because it featured Tucker Carlson angrily accusing Jon Stewart of being John Kerry’s “butt boy.” Stewart had been invited onto the show on a lazy Friday in order to plug his book and tell some very mildly envelope-pushing bipartisan jokes. Instead, the host of “The Daily Show” took the opportunity to accuse the hosts of “Crossfire” — and by clear implication almost all their colleagues in the political chat show business — of poisoning America’s political culture.
“Crossfire,” Stewart charged, exemplified the news media’s practice of encouraging, participating in and acting as an echo chamber for “partisan hackery.” Rather than discharge their public duty of culling from the available evidence a clear and unbiased picture of the issues shaping the campaigns, the media have allowed the election to be reduced to a contest between each side’s apparatchiks to see who can lie more consistently, more convincingly and with a straighter face.
Whatever one thinks of Stewart’s own value as a vanguard of the public interest — and let me state for the record that Carlson was right to point out that Stewart’s John Kerry interview was itself a nauseating example of uninformative soft-peddling — it’s difficult to argue with Stewart’s logic. Last week, the Program on International Policy, a nonpartisan group at the University of Maryland, released a poll on public perceptions of the race’s main issues and the candidates’ positions on them. The results were simply jaw-dropping. Among Bush supporters, a full 72 percent think Saddam’s Iraq either had WMDs or a significant WMD program. Even worse, 57 percent are under the diametrically wrong impression that the Duelfer report substantiated the charge that Iraq did indeed have a major weapons program. Three-quarters of Bush supporters contend that Iraq provided “substantial support to al Qaeda”; 63 percent believe “clear evidence of this support has been found”; 60 percent think most experts would concur; and 55 percent think that the 9/11 Commission report verifies the charge of “substantial” Iraqi support of al Qaeda. (Those interested should note that Kerry supporters believe the opposite and correct propositions by comparable margins.)
Bush’s supporters aren’t any more on-target about their man’s views. Fewer than half (47 percent) know that Bush favors expediting the building of a missile defense system; 39 percent know that Bush opposes the Kyoto treaty; 38 percent know that he opposes entry into the International Criminal Court; 24 percent are aware that Bush opposes participation in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; 20 percent know that Bush is against an anti-land mine treaty; and a dismal 13 percent correctly believe that Bush opposes including labor and environmental standards in the negotiation of trade agreements. (Kerry supporters, once again, are reliably accurate about Kerry’s views — surprise!)
“But this can’t be right,” you might be saying to yourself. If there’s one thing about this campaign that we know for sure, it’s that Kerry is an opportunistic flip-flopper who can’t be counted on to maintain a consistent position, whereas Bush forthrightly and unapologetically presents his truly held views, damn the consequences. That, at least, has been the dynamic by which virtually all campaign coverage has been determined, and that is the explanation for the gulf between reality and Bush supporters’ perception of it.
One could easily blame the Bush administration’s term-spanning string of untruths for producing this state of affairs — and lest I be perceived as giving the Kerry campaign a pass, I wish only to say for now that Kerry-Edwards, while repugnantly deceitful and demagogic, have been sublimely honest relative to their opponents. But the fact of the matter is that media complicity is the sine qua non of the ongoing degradation of our politics. If lies or technical truths with the intent to deceive were reported as what they actually are, it’s inconceivable that so many people could be so profoundly misguided about so much.
The legitimate truth-standard — what John Kerry clearly meant by his “global test” remark, incidentally — ought to be the correspondence between a candidate’s claims and perceptually accessible reality. In place of that standard, the media have substituted the resemblance between candidates’ claims and the prefabricated narrative settled upon at the outset of the campaign (and left unrevised since then). Predictably, then, the administration’s distorted interpretations of the reams of reports disconfirming their allegations about Iraq have been measured against the preconception of Bush as straightforwardly “letting you know where he stands” at least as much as against the conclusions of those reports.
Confronted by evidence of their profession’s gross misconduct during the campaign, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson lamely retorted that Stewart hadn’t made it clear whether they should be tougher on politicians or more compliant, and besides, Stewart himself hadn’t adequately grilled a presidential candidate when given the opportunity. Let’s pretend for a moment that CNN availing itself of the reportorial standards of Comedy Central isn’t itself a metaphor for the journalistic catastrophe that shows like “Crossfire” have created. Begala and Carlson have still committed a category error: The problem isn’t that cable news pundits are capable only of modulating their interviewing style between fawning sycophancy and phony, un-enlightening hostility; the problem is that the pundits offer no resistance to being unofficial appendages of the campaigns and are oblivious to the roles they have assumed. Until and unless campaign journalists are able to overcome their own profound laziness and inertia, we will be left exasperatedly exclaiming, with Jon Stewart, “Stop hurting America.”
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.