Jon Stewart and False Equivalence

Count me among the many devoted fans of Jon Stewart, but this segment from Wednesday’s show bothered me a bit:

In case you can’t watch, the segment was on the failed Wisconsin recall election, and Stewart drew an extended comparison between the right-wing gloating on Fox News and the left-wing sadness on MSNBC, that came perilously close to one of the cardinal sins of journalism, the false equivalence. Stewart implied that MSNBC is a equally hackish left-wing version of Fox News.

Now, Stewart isn’t a journalist, as he always is quick to point out, but this is the sort of thing he loves to carp on in cable news, as in his famous Crossfire interview. False equivalence (also known as High Broderism, the kind of pox-on-both-their-houses frame that is so common on Op-Ed pages) is dishonest, lazy, and attempts to arrogate a kind of “arbiter of all wisdom” position that the journalist has not earned.

In point of fact, while Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz do have a whiff of hackery about them, MSNBC also gives three hours of morning TV to a former Republican congressman (Joe Scarborough), and also has a lot of honest, non-hack programming, especially Up with Chris Hayes, perhaps the best political talk show in the last twenty years. Stewart’s frame, in short, is bogus.

I reckon the lesson here is that the obnoxious tics that dominate elite media, the view from nowhere, High Broderism, abuse of the sphere of deviance, etc., have a powerful attraction if Jon Stewart can be drawn into them. (And this isn’t the first time.)

Ryan Cooper is the Monthly handyman. Follow him on Twitter @ryanlcooper.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is Washington correspondent for The Week.