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US comedian Jon Stewart speaks to reporters as he arrives at the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center in Washington on November 10, 2008. The prize was awarded to late US comedian George Carlin, who died on June 22. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
"The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart is a frequent and trenchant critic of the cable news machine, but doesn't typically have his views challenged because he calls the beat on his own program. But in an hour-long interview on "The Rachel Maddow Show," the funny man was forced to explain and defend the reasons behind his recent "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" and clearly state where he stands on America's partisan divide.
On a set that looked like it was borrowed from Charlie Rose, the two hosts engaged in a lively and wide-ranging discussion about the role of media, the topics it covers and how it addresses issues of national significance in a time of oversaturated news coverage.
Stewart's central point was that America's political discourse devotes too much time to the red state/blue state "right vs. left" divide rather than focus on "corruption vs. not corruption", meaning not just blatant wrongdoing like bribery (see: Jefferson, Rep. William), but also neglecting stories that don't fall into that basic narrative. He cited NPR's firing of Juan Williams and how it was an example of "the only fight that [cable news seems] to feel matters."
Though he uses FOX News as a frequent foil, he admitted that he was impressed by how it has "delegitimized the idea of editorial authority" while still maintaining it in significant quantities by way of controlling who appears on its shows.
Stewart and Maddow clashed over the nature of whether or not FOX was a partisan network, with Maddow maintaining that is was while Stewart pushed back, saying he believed that "they are ideological, but I don't know if they're partisan."
Their main point of contention centered on whether or not one side of the political debate was worse than the other when it comes to the use of invective and hyperbole in its rhetoric. Maddow accused Republicans of being worse, while Stewart maintained that both sides use overheated language to shut down debate.
"What's the lefty way of shutting down debate?" Maddow asked.
"You've said Bush is a war criminal," he said. "Now that may be technically true. In my world, a war criminal is Pol Pot or the Nuremberg trials...again we have to define our terms. But I think that's such an incendiary charge, that when you put in into conversation as 'well, technically he is,' that may be right, but it feels like a conversation stopper, rather than a conversation starter."
Maddow also made the argument that both hosts were in essence doing the same job, a notion that Stewart contested.
"You're on the playing field," he said of Maddow, "and I'm in the stands yelling things...there is no honor in what I do, but I do it as honorably as I can."
Stewart also leveled heavy fire at the 24-hour news cycle, saying it was better built for covering things like 9/11 or the O.J. trial rather than everyday events. The need for something new all the time leads to things like Balloon Boy, he said.
Despite their differences of opinion, Stewart and Maddow disagreed without being disagreeable. In that sense at least, the spirit behind Stewart's rally lived at least for one night.