In the world of politics and TV journalism, you haven’t truly arrived until Jon Stewart has parsed your public words to find the perfect nugget of hypocrisy or misinformation that can then be transformed into a comical critique. It is a public service, actually, a check on our leaders and the Fourth Estate that keeps press secretaries and television producers awake at night. Last night, Stewart himself got a small taste of The Daily Show treatment. He didn’t seem to like it.
Recall that Stewart ventured into hostile territory last weekend, as a guest of Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. At one point during their conversation, Stewart challenged Wallace, “Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox! Fox viewers. Consistently, every poll!”
Wallace didn’t protest or correct Stewart, but apparently he could have. On Monday, PolitiFact.com, a journalism accountability project run by the St. Petersburg Times, reviewed recent media studies that attempted to measure how informed consumers of specific news outlets were. Though Fox News and its shows had blemishes in this regard, they also ranked higher than their cable rivals in a few related studies — in at least one case, higher than The Daily Show — forcing PolitFact to conclude, “The way Stewart phrased the comment, it’s not enough to show a sliver of evidence that Fox News’ audience is ill-informed. The evidence needs to support the view that the data shows they are ‘consistently’ misinformed — a term he used not once but three times. It’s simply not true that ‘every poll’ shows that result. So we rate his claim False.”
To his credit, Stewart admitted his error during last night’s show, but that served as just another opportunity to rip Fox News. “I defer to [PolitiFact's] judgment and I apologize for my mistake,” said a mock-serious Stewart. “To not do so would be irresponsible, and if I were to continue to make such mistakes and misstatement, and not correct them — especially if each and every one of those misstatements happened to go in one very particular direction on the political spectrum — well that would undermine the very integrity and credibility that I work so hard to pretend to care about.”
He then quickly unfurled a long laundry list of on-air statements made by Fox News that PolitiFact had also proved false, the inference being, “At least I own up to my mistakes.”
Stewart’s comical jiu jitsu may have reminded viewers that Fox News has uncorked some jaw-dropping doozies over the years, but ironically, its Stewart’s faux pas that leaves the biggest welt. Media accountability is his M.O., and to be held up as an example of what he ridicules and disdains clearly didn’t sit well with him. Responding with yet another attack on Fox News’ credibility may have demonstrated their history of unrepentant misstatements, but in this bizarre through-the-looking-glass scenario, the jester is actually held to a higher standard than the news organization.
Clearly, Stewart’s misstatement was an honest mistake, and his error should not excuse Fox News from its own past mistakes. But did Stewart’s follow-up attack on Fox News come across as spiteful, in light of his own error? Does a misstatement from Stewart injure his reputation much more than a fib from one of Fox’s personalities?