Published on October 15th, 2014 | by Sharilyn Johnson
10 years ago today, Jon Stewart destroyed Crossfire
“Stop hurting America.”
It’s hard to believe a full decade has passed since Daily Show host Jon Stewart made that infamous plea to Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala during a tense appearance on CNN’s daily partisan shoutfest.
Stewart was on the road promoting America (The Book) in fall of 2004, and by then The Daily Show was well established as the gold standard of political satire. With just a few weeks to go before the presidential election, all eyes were on Stewart.
If you need more context, try this on for size: less than a month before his Crossfire appearance, Stewart and a few colleagues pitched Comedy Central executives on a Daily Show spinoff that would parody these yelling, fact-shunning pundits. Yes, it was still a pre-Colbert Report world, but the need was becoming clear.
Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded CNN’s video of the appearance, and since the subsequent invention of YouTube, several million more have watched the 12-minute takedown. In it, Stewart says Carlson and Begala are “partisan hacks” who aren’t fulfilling their journalistic responsibilities, and describes the program as dishonest and “theater.”
Daily Show Executive Producer Ben Karlin was with Stewart in Washington the day of his Crossfire appearance. At a 2005 Q&A at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival, Karlin told the audience:
“It was something we had theoretically talked about a lot before, in the office, like ‘what about just going on that show and just telling those guys off?’ But we didn’t think he’d really do it…. And when we left the studio, we were convinced like ‘oh man, that was terrible, hope no one watches that.’ We kind of felt bad about it, we felt like it didn’t go that well. Not that it was that planned out, it just kind of unfolded. And then we were really surprised that people reacted that way, because we did not think it was consistent with how we normally treat the news and how we treat the media. And it was really surprising that it tapped into something that apparently a lot of other people were feeling as well.”
In a SiriusXM interview in 2012, former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry said that the way Stewart tells it, he hadn’t eaten that day, and it put him in a bad mood before hitting the Crossfire stage.
“So him not having breakfast that morning got a show cancelled,” Corddry joked.
Indeed, Stewart fans happily gave him full credit for the demise of the program in early 2005. But can Crossfire‘s cancellation really be traced back to this appearance?
Sophia A. McClennen, coauthor of the new book Is Satire Saving Our Nation?: Mockery and American Politics, says yes.
“There is no question that Jon Stewart was central to ending Crossfire. After his appearance, the show lost all credibility,” she says.
Many say the appearance positioned Stewart as a comedian with more respectability than the newscasts he mocks.
“Not only did he lead to the ending of Crossfire, but his coverage of current issues often appears as news items the following day,” McClennen says, and notes that his attention to social issues, such as the First Responders Bill, often earns more attention than what the 24-hour news networks deliver.
The public’s perception of Stewart as both comedian and commentator has remained constant, even though the same can’t be said for Crossfire‘s absence. The show was brought back in fall of 2013, and has appeared on CNN’s schedule intermittently over the past year.
So has Stewart had a lasting impact on CNN’s programming? It would seem there’s still plenty to fix, if the Daily Show’s regular lambasting of the network – like this segment from July of this year – is any indication:
Stewart may have won the battle in 2004, but the war wages on.
The full transcript of Stewart’s Crossfire appearance is available here.