Editor’s note: This piece headed the Braver Angels Weekend Newsletter for Aug. 7, 2022. -MG
Remember when comedian Jon Stewart went on that old CNN show Crossfire and all but destroyed it?
“I watch your show every day, and it kills me,” Stewart tells Red / Blue co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala in a 2004 segment I’ve watched and rewatched countless times. It’s one of the nicer ways he skewers them for the point-scoring Left v. Right showdowns they frame as “debate.” Stewart outs their format as pure partisan theater — all in front of a live, stunned studio audience.
“Here’s what I want to tell you guys,” Stewart says to the co-hosts, batting away their attempts to get him to mock anything else. “Stop. Stop hurting America.”
What happened next is the stuff of legend: CNN canceled the show, citing Stewart’s takedown, and the whole thing went down as one shining example of media justice served.
‘Stupid, incompetent, or both’
Setting aside his broader political work, I can’t tell you how much I admired Stewart’s courage and clarity in the segment. The way he spoke up for so much frustration with how our media can exploit us. It was nothing short of an epic win for me… until I stumbled on an essay that made me see what we’d lost.
“In 2003, the idea of a show where Republicans and Democrats would meet and debate — on equal terms — felt mundane and taken for granted,” writes Will Chamberlain in Human Events. “In 2019, however, there isn’t a single show on cable television where Republicans and Democrats routinely meet on equal terms.”
In fact, Chamberlain argues, “By ‘destroying’ Crossfire, Stewart unintentionally brought on an era of monologue-driven news shows that portray their adversary as stupid, incompetent, or both.”
Drat, I thought. He’s right. Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Rachel Maddow Show, you know the ones. Even when these shows speak powerfully for their side and for our shared struggle toward a better society, they build ideological fortresses within which the idea of making equal space for opposing voices — let alone the practice — isn’t just pointless. It’s a joke.
But as I look around at where these one-way citadels have led us, how we’re crushed by the weight of assumptions we don’t test and certainties we don’t challenge, I’m not laughing.
Sharing ground and sharing power
Do I think Crossfire was worth saving? Absolutely not. But I do think that losing stages where liberals and conservatives meet on shared ground with shared power hurts America more than we realize.
Which is precisely what I was thinking as I watched and rewatched two powerful clips from recent Braver Angels Debates, produced for our Instagram account by summer media intern Andrew Mister: the first from our debate on abortion, the second from our debate on guns.
In each debate, everyday Americans — sorry pundits! — met on equal footing to give honest, opposing takes on two of the toughest issues we face with no hostility, no theatrics, no lack of genuine conflict or passion, and whole heaps of courage.
- How come all these mass shootings stop whether by death or suicide when the insane meet a reactive force? … Are the kids not worth protecting?
- The idea of having armed teachers is a scary thought, and the idea of needing a gun to be safe in society certainly doesn’t make me feel safer.
- Do we wish to be known as a country that preys on our most vulnerable? If we begin to justify abortion on this basis, what prevents us from doing the same with the elderly, those with mental illness, and those with genetic disabilities?
- How can we help stop pregnancy before it starts, help people not get pregnant when they don’t want to be? Can this be about men and not about women?
Maybe cable news lacks models for how opposing perspectives can engage each other on equal ground. But we don’t. Apart from our debates we have our podcasts, our workshops, and a full slate of alliance meetings challenging the status quo all across the country.
If we’re going to stop hurting and start truly sharing a country that is sometimes a battleground but always our home, we need to create and recreate these models as often and as strongly as we possibly can.