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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Jon Stewart + iFilm, BitTorrent = Mass Disruption

By now you may have heard about the fiery episode on CNN's Crossfire, in which Daily Show host Jon Stewart spoke his mind, said Crossfire was "hurting America," refused to be a comedic "monkey" for the show, and called Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson a naughty name. If you missed it, you can download the clip on iFilm or BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer technology that is being used to exchange video clips and movies the way Napster was used for music.

A summary of the heated exchange on Salon reads:

"I think you're a lot more fun on your show," said Tucker Carlson to Crossfire guest Jon Stewart this afternoon. "And I think you're as much of a **** on your show as on any other," Stewart shot back. It wasn't the faux avuncularity we've come to expect from Stewart on The Daily Show but there, of course, he's playing a role. Here he was himself -- and he wasn't buying any of it.

From the moment Stewart sat down he made no secret of how repugnant he found the show. In fact, he said to Carlson and co-host Paul Begala that he had been so hard on the show he felt it was his duty to come on and say to their faces what he has said to friends and in interviews. What he said was that their show was "hurting America," and he was being only slightly hyperbolic. Stewart told them that when America needed journalists to be journalists they had instead chosen to present theater.

What's truly remarkable about the incident is not that it happened, but people's reaction to it, particularly on the Net. Downloads on iFilm and BitTorrent reportedly exceeded the ratings for the original episode on CNN. Users with low bandwidth aren't left out either, as the transcript of the exchange has been posted on websites. Bloggers who focus on media and marketing have sharply criticized CNN for missing a golden opportunity to promote itself by offering free downloads of the clip through CNN.com (though I can imagine the suits at CNN being horrified by the whole thing).

In the brave new world of television, events such as this one converge with many other technologies to take on a life of their own, outside the control of the big networks. As "big media" continues to consolidate its power, this kind of disruption is precisely what's needed.

The incident could also mark a turning point in the way the media covers politics. That night, the tables were turned: Stewart drove the discussion, and the laughs were at the expense of Carlson and co-host Paul Begala. This was in part because Stewart was dead-on in his criticism of Crossfire and its ilk; so-called "debate" shows feature nothing more than "screaming heads," and contribute little if anything to understanding of critical issues. In fact, much of the post-exchange analysis has noted that The Daily Show has more genuinely thought-provoking information than much of what we see on cable news. Perhaps the reaction to the exchange marks a disgust people feel with know-it-all cable pundits; folks are getting tired of blowhards and being told what to think, and, with the Net, have the power to form and communicate their own opinions.

Sources: Boing Boing, unmediated