Last Friday afternoon, when comedian Jon Stewart called CNN Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson a body part exclusive to men, maybe half a million viewers finally saw an honest moment on this program.
Too bad. While it was not the first time ever on TV that the American media punditocracy was ripped for its failures, it was probably the most satisfying.
That's because it was live, and Stewart confronted the enemy head-on, instead of mocking it from his Daily Show perch where he anchors his celebrated "fake news" program.
No wonder more than a million people have downloaded video of the exchange. (Try onegoodmove.org or mediamatters.org.) In fact, due to traffic, some websites crashed.
But then, how often does one get to see a TV star refuse to play the TV game?
Stewart would not act like the comic "monkey" CNN obviously expected him to be when it booked him. He was supposed to be the good guest, and go through the motions of plugging the bestseller, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide To Democracy Inaction.
Instead, he lashed out at Crossfire's "partisan hackery," and accused the daily political screamfest of "hurting America."
Appearing in a grey V-neck and looking very serious, Stewart relentlessly went after the program, as he often does on the Daily Show. (His preferred punching bag is Carlson's conservative cohort, Robert Novak, whom Stewart calls "Douchebag for Liberty.")
Insisting that calling Crossfire a debate show is "like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition," Stewart charged: "You're doing theater, when you should be doing debate ... What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery."
Stewart was making an appeal for serious political discussion, free of partisan spin, talking points, lies and deception.
"Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America," he pleaded. "Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations ... You're part of their strategies."
But that didn't sit well with Carlson, who also fronts a show on PBS. He acted as if he didn't know that Stewart hosts a comedy show, not a newscast.
Indeed, Stewart doesn't mock politicians so much as he skewers the media that cover them. Carlson, on the other hand, just roasts liberals and Democrats — and he was clearly resentful that Kerry appeared on Stewart's show instead of one of his.
"You had John Kerry on your show and you sniff his throne and you're accusing us of partisan hackery?" Carlson squealed, claiming Stewart asks "suck-up" questions.
"The show that leads into me (Crank Yankers) is puppets making crank phone calls," Stewart retorted. "What is wrong with you?"
"I do think you're more fun on your show," Carlson sniffed.
"You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show," Stewart snapped back.
Frankly, as a longtime follower of the Crossfire smackdown, a whole different down-there-in-the-underwear body part not exclusive to men comes to my mind while watching Carlson.
But you have to hand it to him: He is very, very good at his job of interrupting people, outshouting guests and making things up. Carlson is always more aggressive and better prepared than his squishy liberal adversaries, Paul Begala and James Carville.
(By the way, both of them are advising the Kerry-Edwards campaign while denying they are in a conflict-of-interest situation. Yeah, right. They are, just as Fox News chief Roger Ailes was when offered political advice to the White House.)
Crossfire wasn't Stewart's only target. He included other shouting head shows such as MSNBC's Hardball while tossing in a few made-up ones as well — "I'm Going to Kick Your Ass" or "Will Jump On It."
Complained Carlson: "What's it like to have dinner with you? It must be excruciating. Do you like to lecture people like this or do you come over to their house and sit and lecture them; they're not doing the right thing, that they're missing their opportunities, evading their responsibilities?"
This was probably the most telling moment in the entire exchange. It showed how threatening Stewart, who has been celebrated in recent years with countless Emmys and magazine covers, is to Carlson and his ilk.
That's not just because of his popularity, but because he won't sit at the exclusive media table where the big talking heads are. He's like the guest who comes and points out the superficiality of everyone at the party.
It's reported that, after the show, Carlson took Stewart to task for saying, at a publishing event last week, that he supports Kerry.
Accusing him of "selling out," Carlson said. "If you are a satirist or an acute social observer, and (Stewart) is, and all of a sudden you suspend disbelief on someone or suck up rather than prod or poke someone, people will look at you and say, `Even if I agree with you, I don't like it.'"
Do you think Carlson would say such a thing about, say, the formerly funny Dennis Miller, who openly supports George W. Bush on his CNBC show?
Maybe Carlson ought to watch the ads for The Daily Show that appear in the middle of Crossfire. "Four correspondents! Zero credibility!" they boast. "Even better than being informed!"
All of which could apply to Crossfire.
But the real joke? The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey reports that Daily Show viewers follow the presidential campaign more closely and are more educated than the average American.
Do Tucker Carlson and his cable counterparts not understand that they make dumb shows that dumb down the electorate?
© 2004 Toronto Star