July 26, 2005

Did Jon Stewart do a lame interview with Rick Santorum?

Here's a New Republic piece about "The Daily Show," especially the interview Jon Stewart did with Rick Santorum last night (which I just watched):
With most political guests, Stewart sticks to harmless questions and gentle quips, and he seems unable to pursue an argument. Rarely have such flaws been more pronounced than last night, when Senator Rick Santorum appeared on the set.

It should have been great. Santorum, on the show to promote his new book It Takes a Family, isn't shy about sharing his views. He has blamed Boston's political liberalism for the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal; he has compared homosexuality to "man on dog"; and he has equated Democratic attempts to preserve the filibuster to "Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.'" Surely with material like this, Stewart could get a spirited debate going. Yet the only solid part of the interview was the start:

STEWART: [People] felt that we would not agree on a lot of things, so I'd like to start off on some common ground. I will throw the first salvo: I believe sir, that ice cream is a delicious treat. But too much, sir, will spoil the appetite. Your move, sir.

SANTORUM: I uh ... I would agree with that.

After that it was all downhill. Stewart simply began to think out loud...

Read the whole thing, which recounts the interview in detail and is very critical of Stewart. But I thought it was a decent interview. It was not the equivalent of the suck-up interview Stewart did with John Kerry during the campaign. Everyone knows how much Stewart disagrees with Santorum. The "Daily Show" audience booed last Thursday when Santorum was announced as the Monday guest. I felt that Stewart was trying to demostrate that a person that far from him politically could sit down at his table and be treated with respect.

Stewart made his points subtly, in the middle of the mushy niceness. Santorum kept talking about the "ideal" of the man-and-woman-with-children family, and Stewart accepted that ideal but asked why not include other people in that positive model even if it's a step away from ideal. He noted when Santorum equated heterosexuality with virtue and got Santorum to back away from that equation a tad.

I think Stewart was trying to make a connection and a lot of the blather was the kind of small talk that establishes that one can talk. It drew the audience in, and it drew Santorum into a relaxed dialogue. (Did you see Santorum smiling about Victoria's Secret?)

Sure, Stewart could have shredded him with harsh questions, but that's not the only way to talk about politics.

30 comments:

Nick said...

Lets not forget that the show airs on Comedy Central. Hello!

Charlie (Colorado) said...

Don't you think that the fact that Stewart treated Santorum with respect is just what NRO was really complaining about?

Sloanasaurus said...

Charles is right on. It's obvious that NRO believes that Stewart is their guy. How dare he waiver off the reservation.

Troy said...

And besides -- Stewart has to get guests. At least half the nation is somewhat sympathetic with Santorum's views on a lot of topics -- probably a lesser % of Comedy Central's target audience, but it still does not do to take cheap shots at a guest when you are trying to gather an audience -- not alienate.

Stewart does well with Zell Miller, John Podhoretz, et al. I give him credit for being mostly fair -- considering he's a pro at being glib on TV and they are not.

Ron said...

Why do people think the only way to be critical of someone is to be in "attack dog" mode? I thought Stewart gave Santorum enough rope, and Santorum looked like he was hanging himself; Stewart hit him with just enough to make him look ridiculous! That type of critique will stick more than more "Fox-like" yelling.

grumpyTA said...

I agree with Ron. And although I was expecting Stewart to be a bit more aggressive (and to possibly ask about Santorum's "outed" gay communications director) -- perhaps all of his anger was lost during last week's Bernard Goldstein interview.

Ann, I think you bring up a good point: harsh questions are NOT the only way to talk politics. But, I would also argue that an aggressive political style is seen as a masculine style -- and perhaps Stewart wasn't being man enough to pacify ardent critics of Santorum.

Troy said...

But it's a COMEDY show. No one really give's a tinker's damn what Stewart thinks about politics.
Only a stump would not know that Stewart disagrees with Santorum on just about everything but ice cream. If Stewart goes after Santorum -- half the audience laughs because some libs are close-minded and troglodyte-ish as they accuse conservatives of being... the other half would never watch again because you have a profesional comedian trading barbs with a politician -- a desperately uneven match for almost all politicians -- not an intentionally funny group of people for the most part.
Stewarts' not dumb -- he can attack Goldberg because he's a talking head too and no one is invested politically or emotionally in him. A politician is different -- not that they shouldn't be asked hard questions. John Stewart doesn't have the gravitas to carry it off and he does not want to piss off a large segment of his audience -- real or potential.

Effern said...

(Disclaimer: I have this episode Tivo'd and haven't watched it yet.)

Some generic points:

1. That would be TNR, not NRO. Unless this is the new snide reference to TNR being all neocon-ish. In which case, guffaw, snort.

2. I haven't done the gumshoe work on this, but it's entirely possible that Santorum's book was published by a Viacom subsidiary, in which case the hard debate will take the form of empty patter about ice cream.

There's plenty to rip Santorum on, and generally, the Daily Show takes their shots at the guy, however I wonder if the explicit presence of Santorum's book made spirited debate verboten.

Again, I haven't seen it, so I reserve the right to adjust my opinions accordingly after I watch the show this evening.

Matt said...

Stewart's always been about rational debate, exchange of issues, and trying to find common ground. A great example of this is Bernard Goldberg from a few weeks ago, who came off (to me, at least) as though he was becoming exactly the thing that his book is (allegedly) about condemning.

Also, Stewart puts funny (and, to a degree, informative) above "partisan" in his list of objectives, which makes his show far better as comedy (and, arguably, as advocacy) than, say, Air America.

Effern said...

The dots are hereby connected.

Sumner Redstone = CEO of Viacom.

Notable quote in Time: "But it happens that I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican Administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.”

Rick Santorum = Republican.

Not that the Viacom CEO has his fingers in the goings-on at the Daily Show, but it might explain the (alleged, still haven't seen the show) kid glove treatment.

Bonus speculation: If the CEO's comments reflect the overall belief of the Viacom management team, again, this could have a chilling effect on any potentially embarrassing sparring. The prerecorded stuff is one thing, as the subject of the jokes isn't there in the studio when it happens.

Ann Althouse said...

Nick: The show has real political impact. Comedy can be silly or biting. It can make political points or not. Clearly, "The Daily Show" is participating in the political debate and it's very influential especially to young people. So, hello to you too!

Charles & Sloanasaurus: Please use TNR for The New Republic. NRO is used for National Review Online. Other than that, of course, you're right that they want to see Santorum attacked.

Troy: You're right. If Stewart ambushes the conservatives, they won't do that show. And I think his lack of glibness is something of an act -- and quite effective -- and charming.

Ron: I agree. And Stewart has made a big thing of criticizing yelling TV on many occasions. So he can't himself do it. (And he's got Lewis Black to do it for him, anyway.)

Troy: Yes, and consider that Stewart probably had a nice chunk of new viewers who like Santorum. Stewart was reaching out to those people and just trying to say NYC is a good place with nice people too, many of whom are gay. You should feel comfortable with us. We're not just a bunch of jerks with a superior attitude who think you're idiots.

For some reason, I can't remember the Goldberg interview, and I know I watched it. Goldberg kept trying to be funny, right? And bombing. And Stewart informed him that comedy's hard. That's all I remember.

Ron said...

troy: I disagree. Stewart has clearly a large fan base that regards him as more than comedy, much more. Plus, if it's just comedy why have Rick Santorum, of all people on the show? Santorum ain't about the yuks, even as a politician. No James Carvelle-like schtick here. Why have a nice safe, softball interview with Kerry if it's just "comedy?"

Stewart himself tried to use this "just comedy" on his infamous Crossfire appearance last year; "the lead to my show is puppets making crank phone calls." But if it were just about comedy, he wouldn't be on Crossfire, now would he? Or a crank-phone-call-making puppet would have demanded equal time...

No, you put Santorum on to impress your base. Whether he did or not is another question.

Ann Althouse said...

The main problem with the Kerry interview was that it was so booorrrriinggggg. But Stewart had a hilarious bit on the show last night about how boring Kerry is. In fact, he's done that a few times.

Hecla Ma said...

I think Jon Stewart is a pretty smart guy, and that last night's interview with Santorum demonstrated a little bit of what he was trying to get at the day he was on Crossfire: that everytime a liberal and a conservative sit across from each other, it doesn't mean they have to be throwing daggers.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

Stewart's persona on that Crossfire appearance was striking because it in NO WAY resembled the persona he presents on his own show. Calling Tucker Carlson 'a dick' was the sort of thing that you do on Crossfire, not the sort of thing you do on the Daily Show.

Whether you think the Daily Show is satire, poltically relevant, or just comedic fluff, Stewart has made a clear commitment to keeping it friendly.

Ann pointed out a long time ago that even when Stewart skewers the Right he does it in a way that says "but please still like me!".

Tristram said...

I didn't see the Santorum interview, but I have seen Zell on The Daily Show. I wonder if Sohn Stewart is at all gun shy after that? THe most recent Zell (I think he was hawking 'A Deficit of Decency') Stwerart was clearly on his heels for a lot of the interview, and Zell's fire and true belief overwhelmed his gentle criticism (though, this was after discussing challenging Chris Matthew to a duel, so maybe Stewart was using discretion...lol).

Though John Stewart is a very articulate, and quick, talker, there are politicians who have the charisma, and intensity of belief to give as good as they get in interviews. Certainly not putting Santourm up there with Miller as far as putting on a barn burning speech, but perhaps in prepartory discussion, Stewart got a feeling for how much/how hard he could push Santourm? I mean, these interviews aren't done cold, are they? There are preliminary notes, background info, shared anecedotes, and boundries for the the interview.

lindsey said...

"he has compared homosexuality to "man on dog""

IIRc, this is a misrepresentation of what Santorum said. He said that legalization and approval of homosexuality would lead toward greater tolerance to other things also considered to be deviant like a man having sex with a dog. Whether you agree or disagree it's different from what TNR seems to be implying. This is just from what I remember Santorum saying. He may have said something else since then that makes TNR's statement true.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do think that Stewart can't be too overtly political in his interviews.

My 14 year old daughter is an avid watcher of his show, when she can stay up late enough to watch it. And she defends it to me on the basis that it hits both sides of the political divide.

So, if he lets his political views come out too much, he not only alienates a lot of viewers, but loses credibiity with even more, like my daughter who thinks of him as fairly unbiased, but very funny - funnier than I do, but then, there is a 40 year gap between us in age.

Bruce Hayden said...

Lindsey has a point. There is a big difference between equating homosexuality to man and dog, and pointing out the potential of a slippery slope.

None other than Mr. Slippery Slope himself, Eugene Volokh, has made a similar point about gay marriage - that if gay marriage is approved by the courts on the basis of privacy, etc., how can courts then deny polygamous marriage, pedophelia, or even marriage to a pet? Indeed, polygamous marriage has much stronger traditional support, showing up in both the Old and the New Testiment, as well as being legal today in Islam (where men are limited apparently to 4 wives, but unlimited concubines).

Of course, Eugene is not in favor of polygamy, pedophelia, or even marriage to pets. At least I don't think he is. In fact, I think that he is actually in favor of Gay Unions and somewhat ambivalent on Gay Marriage. But his legal concerns are real, and, I suspect, so are Rick Santorum's.

Elizabeth said...

Not the slippery slope again. Saying legalizing gay marriage will open the door to "man on dog" is pretty much a comparison, in basic English. The point is to say this thing is enough like this other thing that we should worry about allowing it.

We allow alcohol and tobacco sales without allowing heroin sales. We set age limits for marriage, drinking, making contracts, and other activities. We can legalize gay marriage without allowing people to marry their dogs. And since dogs can't say "I do" I think we're pretty safe in saying they won't meet the criteria for consent, either in marriage or in sex.

katiebakes said...

I was happy to come home from work and see this post ... last night I checked Althouse post-DS hoping for some thoughts on the show!

Here's my take. When Stewart finally just shook his head in what seemed to be genuine amazement and remarked that the two men were simply hitting an ideological wall that could not be bridged (ideological river that could not be bridged? ideological wall that could not be climbed? They all sound stupid, but continuing on...) I was both impressed and relieved.

Impressed because I felt the same way, but relieved because it meant that Stewart's tedious harping on the same point over and over was coming to an end. I appreciated the attempt to reason with Santorum, but I thought he devoted way too much time to a round-and-round-we-go argument.

(That all being said, last night was one of the few times I've caught the DS, and with the cable guy -- fingers crossed -- coming on Thursday I am going to become a regular viewer, I think. The Lance Armstrong "Quitter!" segment had me giggling, and Stewart's face after showing Kerry speak about Lance was priceless.

katiebakes said...

I was happy to come home from work and see this post ... last night I checked Althouse post-DS hoping for some thoughts on the show!

Here's my take. When Stewart finally just shook his head in what seemed to be genuine amazement and remarked that the two men were simply hitting an ideological wall that could not be bridged (ideological river that could not be bridged? ideological wall that could not be climbed? They all sound stupid, but continuing on...) I was both impressed and relieved.

Impressed because I felt the same way, but relieved because it meant that Stewart's tedious harping on the same point over and over was coming to an end. I appreciated the attempt to reason with Santorum, but I thought he devoted way too much time to a round-and-round-we-go argument.

(That all being said, last night was one of the few times I've caught the DS, and with the cable guy -- fingers crossed -- coming on Thursday I am going to become a regular viewer, I think. The Lance Armstrong "Quitter!" segment had me giggling, and Stewart's face after showing Kerry speak about Lance was priceless.

Irene Done said...

I thought Santorum was a weak debater. As you point out, he continually returned to "we should legislate to the ideal." He could have helped himself by giving an example of how government encourages the ideal in other areas (I don't know--like encouraging home ownership even though not every citizen can buy a house). But even had the questioning been contentious, Santorum seemed determined to not come off as hateful, hickish or holier-than-thou in such a setting. So it had to be an unsatisfying interview for anyone wanting a sound-byte fight.

Elizabeth said...

I don't think the DS is in danger of becoming a surrogate for any particular agenda. Even while he operates from a fairly consistently position on the left, Stewart filters it through comedy--and if one is dedicated to getting the laugh, one blurs lines at will--and I believe he's also sincere about what he preached at bowtie boy on Crossfire. I'll take his brand of news/satire/commentary over the major network and cable shows any day, even if the less civil side of me would like to see Santorum popped in the snout, rhetorically of course.

Al said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charlie (Colorado) said...

You're absolutely right, for some reason I confounded NRO and TNR. Derbyshire will no doubt be calling any minute.

jar said...

Watched the interview tonight as I couldn't keep my eyes open for it last night. A civilized conversation. Agree to disagree. I enjoyed it.

XWL said...

I think most can agree regardless of politics that Santorum comes across as an empty headed ideologue.

I think the veiled hostility Stewart chose to display (rather than the open hostility of the crossfire appearance) has to do with the venue and opponent.

The Daily Show is supposed to be comedy and Santorum given the rope will gladly find the highest tree from which to dangle himself.

But (of the damning variety) one rhetorical gambit that Stewart has relied upon too frequently when speaking with cultural conservatives is the 'but what about slavery/racism'.

He did it with Goldberg (but Jefferson eff'd slaves) and Santorum (but in the good old days there was racism).

To observe a coarsening of society does not forgive the sins of the past, and the sins of the past do not forgive the sins of the present.

False dichotomies are the stock and trade of extremists on both sides and it's tiresome, and at some point if Stewart goes back to the racism well hopefully someone will hit him upside the head with the 'where are the minorities behind or in front of the camera on your show Mr. Stewart' retort (let's see him funny himself out of that hole).

I hate racial bean counting, but when someone resorts to those tactics sometimes it's good to PC them to death right back.

(and sorry for the lenghty semi-rant)

Noumenon said...

I agree with Bruce Hayden's daughter. I need the Daily Show to appear reasonable and the interviews with conservatives are the one place where it appears uncomfortably biased, 9 out of 10 times.

Of course that one other time I really appreciate it. Like when he interviewed the Republican instant-spin team after their convention and they spouted that line about "Kerry is the most liberal in the Senate," he asked, "Who determines that?" The spinner basically answers "they do." Stewart keeps asking "Who's 'they'?" "What 'studies show'?" until it becomes obvious that the spinner is evading the question and refusing to source his statement down to anything anyone could argue with (he knows darn well it comes from a one-year ranking in the National Journal). I like Stewart to attack conservative spin, not conservative ideas.

vbspurs said...

In a roundabout way, I coincidentally mention the Daily Show in my blog Wednesday, as being part of the general entertainment power structure who were strangely silent during the whole Theo van Gogh saga.

I called it Hollywood Hypocrites.

I don't watch much Daily Show (any more), as I don't watch much Keith Olbermann (any more), who also appeals to the same comedic-style demographic.

But I did watch the Daily Show directly after the 30 January Iraqi elections, which threw many such people for a loop.

I'll never forget the look on Jon Stewart's face, and his hangdog tone, as he said,

"Could it be that George Bush was right, and all of us were wrong. If yes, I'll kill myself."

Cheers,
Victoria