Thursday, July 03, 2008

ARCHIVES: Eyewitnessing Jon Stewart's 2004 Appearance on 'Crossfire'

Photo of the Oct. 15, 2004, "Crossfire" episode on CNN with host Paul Begala, left, guest Jon Stewart, center, and host Tucker Carlson, right, by Michael Grass

WHEN I WAS OUT with friends a week or so ago in Brooklyn, the topic of Jon Stewart's famous 2004 appearance on CNN's "Crossfire" came up. "Oh, yeah, I was in the audience," I said, barely remembering that I was an eyewitness to the "The Daily Show" host berate the bow-tied Tucker Carlson and more or less indict "Crossfire" -- and perhaps cable news in general -- as an element hurting civil discourse in the nation: "Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations. And we're left out there to mow our lawns. ... You're part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks."

Stewart's comments and Carlson's response caused an uproar, less than a month away from the 2004 elections. Looking back on the episode, it's likely to go into the history books as one of those major intersections of culture and politics of the first decade of the 21st century.

At the time, I was working at Roll Call newspaper on Capitol Hill and while I can't remember the exact circumstances, I somehow got an invite from CNN to be part of the studio audience. From my understanding at the time, CNN had regular trouble filling the "Crossfire" audience -- eh, it was "Crossfire," where the ratings weren't all that great -- at its studios on the campus of George Washington University.

I went with one of my Roll Call colleagues, John McArdle, who at that time an editorial assistant based on the copy desk, where I was a copy editor and jack-of-all-trades for the K Street Files lobbying column and Less than two years later, McArdle would go on to break news that U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) had been arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in what would become a top scandal -- and comical one at that -- of the 2006 election cycle.

Since Stewart's "Crossfire" appearance had been talked up a few days in advance, I had a sneaking suspicion that CNN was banking on a blockbuster performance. So naturally, writing a post for DCist seemed to make perfect sense, since the site I had started just two months earlier, had quickly built up a readership of a couple thousand readers. But yet, I hesitated ...

Looking back on the DCist piece that I would write from the "Crossfire" event, I went out of my way to avoid any sort of appearance of partisanship. At that point DCist had only been live for two to three months, and while my blogging project was never a secret around the Roll Call newsroom, I had said that I would only stick to local D.C. issues and avoid national politics. (And therefore a potential run-in with my editors ... but then again, this was a newsroom where I'll always remember the time where political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said, "I don't get it. What's a blog?" when CNN's "Inside Politics" introduced the blog segment earlier in the year. Stu's reaction pretty much mirrored the facial expression of Judy Woodruff when those strange blog things started popping up online.)

Still, I knew that not writing about Stewart's "Crossfire" appearance would be a crime, especially since the looming Stewart-Carlson showdown promised to be toxic.

So what did I write about? The choice in music being pumped into the studio, to entertain the audience, mainly filled with George Washington University students and parents in for Colonials Weekend. After Stewart initially started laying into Carlson, CNN went to commercial break. And it was off-air when the confrontation became more heated. But for whatever annoying reason, the in-house music drowned out any of the commercial-break conversation, which sadly, never made it into the transcript. So as Stewart and Carlson were gesticulating and becoming quite animated, all we could here was the bland combination of Canada's Bare Naked Ladies, Dusty Springfield ("Son of a Preacher Man") and Simon and Garfunkel ("Cecilia"). What I would pay now for an official transcript of the off-air comments ...

After the show ended, McArdle and I walked out to the side entrance to catch of glimpse of Stewart leaving. But there wasn't too much to see. So I decided to head home. I walked up 21st Street NW toward Pennsylvania Avenue -- to the block where my family had a townhouse decades earlier (today's Kinkead's restaurant at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue.)

I guess to me, the Stewart episode wasn't that big a deal at the time. But in Washington, the bubble the envelops the capital can mute your senses and the memories of those big events that don't seem all that big at the time. And maybe, just maybe, HBO's "K Street" will be given a second chance ...

» Crossfire's Damned Studio Music [DCist]