by Jamison Foser
In the Seinfeld episode “The Comeback,” George Costanza is embarrassed by his inability to think of a response to a co-worker who made fun of his overconsumption of shrimp cocktail by saying, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George later thinks up what he believes is the ideal comeback, “Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you,” and becomes obsessed with gaining an opportunity to use the line, eventually flying to Ohio in order to do so.
George’s long-planned zinger falls flat, however, when the co-worker responds, “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best seller.” Flustered, and again unable to think of a witty response, George blurts out: “Oh yeah? Well I had sex with your wife!” — a jibe that blows up in his face when he is told the man’s wife is in a coma. The episode ends with George driving home, plotting yet another attempt to win the verbal battle.
Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson has been doing his best George Costanza impersonation for the past week, as he lashes out again and again at Jon Stewart, who humiliated Carlson on national television more than four years ago.
In October 2004, Stewart appeared on Crossfire, the long-running CNN debate show Carlson co-hosted at the time. It didn’t go well — either for Crossfire, which was canceled shortly thereafter, or for Carlson. Stewart said Crossfire, and cable shout-fests like it, were “hurting America.” Things went downhill from there, with Carlson telling Stewart he should be more aggressive in questioning politicians, and Stewart responding, “[I]t’s interesting to hear you talk about my responsibility. I didn’t realize that … the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity. … You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.” Exasperated, Carlson sarcastically told Stewart, “You need to get a job at a journalism school,” leading to the response: “You need to go to one.”
At that point, Carlson was reduced to pleading for mercy: “I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.” But Stewart wasn’t finished, telling him, “No. No. I’m not going to be your monkey.”
It now seems Carlson has spent the past four years seething — and looking for an opportunity to finally put Stewart in his place. And with Stewart in the spotlight following his criticism of financial reporting at CNBC, Carlson pounced — or tried to.
Carlson began last Friday, telling Politico: “Jim Cramer may be sweaty and pathetic … but he’s not responsible for the current recession. … His real sin was attacking Obama’s economic policies. If he hadn’t done that, Stewart never would have gone after him. Stewart’s doing Obama’s bidding. It’s that simple.”
It was only a few sentences, but Carlson managed to get two things wrong. Nobody is saying Jim Cramer is “responsible” for the current recession; they’re saying he and CNBC and other media didn’t do enough to expose problems earlier. And Stewart has been criticizing Cramer for at least a year, so Carlson’s claim that he is only doing so because Cramer attacked President Obama’s economic policies is demonstrably false.
Carlson must have liked the “sweaty and pathetic” line; he came back to it during an appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday: “Cramer was craven and sweaty and pathetic. … But Jon Stewart, let’s be honest, this was a partisan attack. He went after Cramer the moment Cramer criticized Obama’s budget. That was the mortal sin. That’s what kicked off this entire feud.”
Again: That isn’t — can’t be — true, because Stewart was criticizing Cramer a year ago, before Obama had either a budget or a presidency from which to offer one. But Carlson was insistent and offered what he seems to think is proof: “[W]as Jim Cramer the only analyst to call it wrong … to, you know, come up with stupid stock picks? Of course not. He criticized Obama’s budget, and that’s what started this, because in the end, Jon Stewart is a partisan hack.” According to Carlson, the fact that Stewart singled Cramer out demonstrates that his criticism is really just about defending Obama from Cramer’s attacks. Ah, but Stewart hasn’t singled Cramer out; he has been criticizing CNBC broadly.
Next, Carlson used his weekly Washington Post online discussion to continue taking shots at Stewart. “Cramer humiliated himself the other night (and on many previous nights on his own show) but that doesn’t mean he and his network are responsible for the meltdown. That’s way too simple. In fact it’s demagoguery.” But — again — Stewart’s argument isn’t that CNBC is “responsible for the meltdown”; it’s that it acted as cheerleaders for the financial markets rather than a watchdog. There’s a difference there, whether Carlson chooses to see it or not.
And by the way, where was Jon Stewart when the bubble was swelling? How many shows did he do on the coming financial collapse? Why didn’t he warn us?
Stewart’s answer invariably is: I’m a comedian. That’s not my job. But that’s a dodge, and increasingly unsustainable. In fact, Stewart is a player in the national conversation. He seeks to influence politics and policy, and he succeeds. It’s time for him to admit that, and be held to the same standards everyone else at his level (including Jim Cramer) lives by.
Got that? The problem isn’t that news organizations like CNBC don’t meet a high enough standard; it’s that Jon Stewart isn’t more like Jim Cramer. The news media are fine; our national discourse suffers from the fact that our comedians aren’t better journalists. Carlson made a similar argument during his 2004 debate with Stewart, so this is apparently something he really believes. (Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen seems to believe this as well.)
Carlson insists that his insults of Stewart had nothing to do with their run-in on Crossfire:
Obviously I haven’t been a big fan since he made that ludicrous scene on Crossfire. (I still have no idea what he was talking about. Honestly.) But if anything, that experience prevented me from criticizing him in public for the past five years. I didn’t want to sound bitter, which (and you don’t have to believe me) I’m not. But the Cramer exchange was just too phony and annoying, so I lost control of myself and said something.
“Lost control?” Bull. Reliable Sources was the second time in three days Carlson had attacked Stewart, and both times he described Cramer with the same “sweaty and pathetic” line. The Washington Post discussion marked his third attack on Stewart in four days. Two days later, he posted his fourth anti-Stewart tirade on The Daily Beast. Either Carlson is prone to losing control of himself in precisely the same way, over and over, or his campaign against Stewart is a little more premeditated than he wants you to think. Probably because he knows that as lame as “the Jerk Store called, and they’re out of you” was, what was really sad was how often George rehearsed it.
Of course, the real problem isn’t that Carlson’s attacks on Stewart seem overeager and contrived, it’s with the merits of his case. He’s wrong or lying about the details of the Stewart-Cramer war of words. In (falsely) challenging Stewart’s motives, and in defending CNBC from criticism nobody is making, Carlson is downplaying the problems with, if not defending, CNBC’s reporting. And his contention that Jon Stewart, rather than CNBC, fails to meet the appropriate standards of journalism, shows an extraordinary lack of perspective. Maybe he’ll come up with a more compelling critique of Stewart soon. We can be sure he’ll keep trying — just like George Costanza.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.