One of the priceless moments in recent media history literally took a popular TV program off the air for evading their responsibilities in critical public discourse. On October 15, 2004, Jon Stewart appeared on CNN Crossfire to personally challenge the two co-hosts on their journalistic ethics. This exchange has become one of the most blogged news items of 2004, and is now part of the popular culture as citizens think about the role of media in 21st century politics. Most important reflection I have from this event is not that a TV program was quickly canceled after an on-air confrontation, but that it took a comedian to expose the shallow nature of political discourse in much of our media.
Alas, not much has changed. The specific format of Crossfire has not been duplicated, but the foundational political premise of the show has basically taken over: politics is a power struggle between predictable ideologies. I believe it was the predictability of the nightly Crossfire interviews that fueled the strongest of Stewart’s criticisms. It was ideological theater where predictable questions brought predictable answers, and where no one was expected to go “off script.” Fortunately, Stewart went “off script.”
Last year at the sudden and shocking death of Tim Russert of Meet the Press, we had the opportunity to reflect on a journalist who hadn’t fallen for the ideology trap, and we mourned his rare gift as a critical and humble political interviewer. Russert’s questions never became predictable. His style and content challenged us to think about the political choices our leaders make as complex and interconnected, rather than reinforcing our political stereotypes in simplistic policy sound bites.
Critical thinking is unpredictable. It never follows a straight line. It’s interested in the political landscape as a puzzle to be understood more each day. It brings deep satisfaction in each new connection between unlikely partners. Critical thinking is a lifestyle practice that requires our on-going attention and interest as we adjust to the changing real world. I think our political and global dilemmas are important enough to leave the predictable scripts of ideology behind as we choose to solve big problems in unpredictable real-world conversations.