Wallace/Stewart interview fallout good for media discourse

Many months ago, in November 2010, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace visited the set of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk with Stewart, inevitably, about the perception of bias in Fox News programming. Wallace continually asked Stewart to come on his Fox program.

Last Sunday, Stewart finally obliged. Again the talks took a turn toward bias in the media, and at Fox in particular – this time, on Wallace’s home turf.

(Click on the annotation for part 2)


The following week, Stewart complained that the version of the interview that aired on Fox News Sunday was unfairly edited and left out what Stewart believed to be a crucial moment in which Wallace seems to admit to Fox “telling the other side of the story” – serving as a counterweight to left-leaning news outlets

Wallace stood behind the editing of the interview, and while on the air with Don Imus (via the Huffington Post) said that Stewart was “somewhat in denial about the bias of his program and more importantly of the mainstream media.”

“I also think he lives in denial about his ambitions,” Wallace added.

Later in the week, PolitiFact determined that a comment Stewart made in the Wallace interview about the level of misinformation experienced among Fox News consumers was false. [It immediately brought to mind the research by Kull, Ramsay, and Lewis (2003) that found Fox News viewing to be strongly correlated with a number of erroneous, pro-American perceptions of the Iraq War.] Stewart accepted PolitiFact’s verdict, but took the opportunity to bring up a few of Fox’s run-ins with the Truth-O-Meter:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


This Sunday, Wallace commented on the fallout again, referring to a 2010 PEW study that measured “knowledge of politics and current events” to further rebut Stewart’s misinformation claims. He pointed out, correctly, that viewers of Hannity and The O’Reilly Factor scored higher on the four-question quiz than did viewers of The Daily Show. What Wallace failed to mention is that viewers of Fox News as a network scored lower than Daily Show viewers, not that it is a particularly meaningful comparison anyway. What might be more surprising, if not notable, is that viewers of Stewart’s “fake news” program were more informed than viewers of any of the big three cable networks, and that listeners of Rush Limbaugh scored higher than any other broadcast source.

Despite all the talk from opposing sides, the results of the study everyone is citing simply did not follow ideological lines. There are exemplary and porous examples for both liberal and conservative outlets. Through continued cherrypicking, each side has managed to congratulate themselves while demonizing the other side. It’s not surprising then, that so few of these sources are actually providing a link to the study itself.

Which is part of the bigger picture in this entire ordeal. Careful selection of supporting data and questionable editing are just tools of the trade in partisan media. But as these debates take to the Internet more than ever before, the truth comes to light. And sometimes, it’s the media outlet itself providing the complete information. Like the clip from Fox News Sunday embedded earlier. That was the complete, unedited interview with Stewart, made available on the FNS webpage (I had to use a YouTube copy due to embedding issues with the Fox website).

Stewart’s Daily Show should be commended here. Despite the relative lack of seriousness in content, Comedy Central knows all about Internet archiving. Visit www.thedailyshow.com/videos, and find clips and extended interviews dating back to 1999 – an astounding public collection that only PBS (to my knowledge) can match.

Viewers are seeking this archived and, more importantly, extended content. Wallace’s sit down with Stewart in November was also edited. Like Wallace’s program, The Daily Show, posted the complete interview on its video archives. It has been viewed 342,500 times – more than double the amount of views for the standard interview.

To be clear, the offering of unedited interviews online should not give news programs a free pass to put misleading content on the traditional airwaves (see Stephen Colbert’s quasi-serious interview with Julian Assange about Wikileaks’ editing process). But it should be commended as a way of offering viewers the whole story and a chance to decide for themselves whether the edited product they were presented was forthright.

As I introduce this blog, I might as well go ahead and mention my affection for CNN’s Reliable Sources. The podcast is appointment viewing for myself, and oftentimes, my students. Howard Kurtz and his panel took on the Wallace/Stewart drama Sunday (jump to 22:50):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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