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On the other side of the desk, Stewart puts the jokes aside

Times Staff Writer

Hosts of CNN’s “Crossfire” had expected their Friday guest to be the zany and sophisticated satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show.” Instead, they got Citizen Stewart, a passionate and earnest media watchdog who snarled and begged them to “stop hurting America” with theatrical news.

Dressed in street wear, Stewart startled his suited hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala with the attacks, calling them “partisan hacks,” saying, “Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations.... You’re part of their strategies.” When Carlson tried to goad Stewart into returning to his more familiar “Daily Show” persona, Stewart refused, saying, “No. I’m not going to be your monkey.”

Then he turned more personal, referring to Carlson’s bow tie as a costume and telling him, “I think you’re as much of a [fool] on your show as on any other.”

Carlson said on Saturday he found the name-calling amusing and doesn’t mind professional criticism in general but that he was disappointed with Stewart’s insights.

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“I’m willing to entertain the idea that our shows have real flaws. Sometimes we contribute more heat than light. But saying, ‘The people are sick of politics. The people want answers, solutions, not debate’ was banal. It was trite. I thought of him as this original thinker. This was boring. Commonplace.”

Instant Internet buzz about the extraordinary 13 minutes of television universally hailed Stewart as a refreshing and clear-eyed critic of an increasingly trivial television news media and skyrocketed him to a new rank in his comedic career -- from wry commentator to serious provocateur.

“Jon Stewart should be congratulated and plenty of people are congratulating him,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture. One Internet site hosting a clip of the show flashed an introductory sign: “Dear Jon, Thank you. Love, America.”

“I have no doubt if Jon Stewart wanted to, he could do some damage to me,” Carlson said. “He’s really witty and cutting in an effective way.”

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In Carlson’s view, though, Stewart “suspended his talents in order to get this trite message across.” While the CNN journalist agrees with Stewart that partisanship is intrinsically dishonest, he said: “I may be a hack, but I’m not partisan. I’m not a Republican or anything. I’m not voting for Bush.”

Stewart’s evolution as media critic has paralleled historical events, Thompson said. A year after taking over “The Daily Show,” the comic lurched into the public consciousness on election night in 2000 satirizing news organizations’ misuse of exit polls, and again this year mocking the pomposity and superficiality of television news correspondents in face of the facts. “Many times I’ve thought, ‘This is the kind of thing CNN and CBS ought to be doing,’ ” Thompson said.

A poll released this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21% of people ages 18 to 29 cited “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” as sources of presidential campaign news. The survey also showed that people who learned news from the comedy shows alone were less likely to know facts of the campaign.

The recipient of several Emmys and the Television Critics Assn.'s top prize for real news programming, Stewart repeatedly reminds fans that his news show is fake. In recent interviews and public appearances, however, the curtain has been pulled back to reveal his underlying passion for “the truth” and his frustration that the fourth estate is, he believes, squandering its public trust.

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At the Democratic National Convention, Stewart surprised some journalists in a breakfast speech saying, “I’m concerned about the incredible number of people who say they get the news from you guys,” and telling a CNN representative, “Your network is silly.”

The Friday exchange with Carlson offered a fascinating, if uncomfortable, role reversal with Stewart persisting in his stern rebukes -- “You have a responsibility to the public discourse and you fail miserably” -- and Carlson trying in vain to turn the tables by noting Stewart’s own softball questioning of presidential candidate John Kerry.

“You’re on CNN,” Stewart retorted. “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”

At one point, as a squirming Carlson tried to break for commercial, Stewart clasped his hands in a pleading gesture and begged repeatedly, “No, please. Please stop....”

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“He was dead serious. That’s the shocking thing,” Carlson said on Saturday. “I thought it was bizarre. Really odd and really boorish. I can’t remember dealing with anyone so sanctimonious.” Carlson said Stewart continued haranguing the co-hosts during commercial breaks and 45 minutes after the show ended.

As media watchdog, Stewart could likely have a slow, cumulative impact on journalists, Thompson predicted. “You can’t be one of those stand-up correspondents on location doing those stories in 2004 without having the hum of ‘The Daily Show’ in the back of your mind.”

More immediately, Carlson said he did not plan to refer to Stewart’s appearance when “Crossfire” airs today. “I’m going to ignore it,” he said.

“The Daily Show” resumes tonight after a week off.

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