"I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise," said then-CNN CEO Jonathan Klein, who said he wanted to take his network away from "head-butting debate shows." At the time, the confrontation between Stewart and Crossfire was seen as a historic leap toward a more civilized media -- but nearly a decade later, cable news is even more outrageously polarized and vitriolic than it was in '04. And few people have benefited from this regression as much as Jon Stewart.
Cable news didn't invent partisanship, but it did popularize being a partisan. There was once a time when you would shy away from actively referring to yourself as politically hard-left or hard-right; to do so implied you were lazy and easily influenced, a kind of political hipster with no firm opinions of your own. Networks like Fox News, MSNBC and CNN have done away with all that now, though, providing a platform for hysterical simpletons who present the same one-dimensional perspective that repeats and repeats: Every current event somehow proves that my party is awesome, and yours hates America.
When Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire in 2004, he was correct in pointing out that this direction the media was headed in was "hurting America." Panel shows like Hannity, Hardball and The O'Reilly Factor have replaced the utility of debate -- two people arguing polar-opposite positions, informing the viewers and leading them to an empathetic center -- and focus only on generating rage in the audience toward a panelist the network disagrees with. "Calling what you do debate is like calling pro-wrestling an athletic competition," Stewart told Carlson.
Anger works in the brain the same way that drugs, sex or accomplishment do -- it stimulates dopamine receptors, the essential ingredient of addiction. And with any addiction, what got you high the first time won't cut it after six months. So the rancor had to become more bitter, the hyperbole more outrageous and the characters more cartoonish in order to meet the increasing demand for a richer hate high.
This is not only the perfect recipe for satire, but following up the experience of anger with laughter is its own wild speedball of social and neurological pleasure. Laughing cools down the stress hormones and soothes the body, and often leads to an implicit bond with the person who's making you laugh. In this specific scenario, the original anger doesn't go away; it is actually reinforced by the experience.
More than just leading to Crossfire's cancellation three months later, Stewart's venomous appearance on the show was the slingshot that hurled him into becoming the world's biggest political satirist; the clip went on to receive almost six million views on You Tube. Soon after The Colbert Report spun off, and Stewart's popularity inspired a Rolling Stone cover story and a march on Washington. Today the show's viewership in 2.5 million people a night.
In his Crossfire appearance, Stewart maintained that he was exempt from the kind of journalistic integrity he felt CNN lacked because "the show that leads into me is puppets making prank phone calls." He is only a comedian, not a journalist, he said. But only moments later Stewart succumbed to the same "partisan hackery" he accused the Crossfire hosts of, telling Carlson "you're as big a dick on your show as on any show."
"We look at the absurdity of the system to provide us our material," Stewart would say later on, commenting on The Daily Show's approach to lampooning the media. "And that is best served by the theater of it all. And, by the way, thank you both for that."
So a strong argument could be made here that Jon Stewart should love the fact that Crossfire is returning to CNN. After all, one of the four co-hosts of the revamped show will be Newt Gingrich, and what other character in American politics has provided Stewart with more material than the former Speaker of the House?
But Stewart would probably not love the suggestion that he is a part of the same machinery of outrage that Crossfire and similar programs engage in night after night. He may be smarter, hipper and slightly more objective, but the entire crux of The Daily Show's humor is based on the buffoonery of people we hate. Viewers tune in to Stewart each night in need of that roller coaster of despising a political person's comments, then laughing at them, then bonding with the host over some seemingly "level-headed" commentary.
We all love to hate, almost as much as we love to laugh. And so long as this remains true, CNN and The Daily Show will stay in business.