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About (Late) Last Night: Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart talk in smart, still dizzying circles [video]

November 12, 2010 |  6:54 am

"You're in the game," Jon Stewart told Rachel Maddow last night on her show, capping off an extended conversation,  which jumped from waterboarding to tea-bagging and beyond above a constant current of media criticism. "You're in the game too," Maddow replied. "We're in the same game."

"You're on the playing field, and I'm in the stands yelling things," Stewart explained. Maddow wasn't having it. "Everyone sees you as on the playing field too," she offered. It was the underlying disagreement around which a flurry of other topics swirled, but it was not an acute enough case of navel-gazing to render the entire discussion unwatchable. In fact, it was unexpectedly riveting television, assuming you have positive feelings toward one or both hosts. 

Stewart, obviously ill, looked pallid and spoke softly, putting Maddow in a somewhat downcast mood to match, and their calm collective tone lent a seriousness to the talk. The severe black background probably helped as well. For more than 40 minutes, the pair spoke on what could be perceived as minutiae, low on sound bites and talking points, burrowing deeper and deeper into a liberal rabbit hole of endless questions and few, if any, answers.

Maddow pushed Stewart on the matter of alleging equivalency between the right and the left, especially with regards to cable news. According to Stewart, Maddow calling President George W. Bush a "war criminal" is too "incendiary" of a charge, even if it is "technically true." Stewart said that "feels like a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter."

Stewart insisted that he was criticizing tone, not content, in most instances. The media's job, he said, is to highlight conflict between two sides. "Both sides have their way of shutting down debate, and the news networks have allowed these two sides to become the fight in the country," Stewart said. "I think the fight in the country is corruption versus not corruption."

When it came to comparing their shows, Stewart rejected labeling "The Daily Show" as "fake news."

"Fake is wrong," he said. "It is a misnomer that we use, and it's glib. We're not news anything. We're commenting on the news, comedically," he said. Maddow said she believes people's perceptions of their shows are similar, regardless of Stewart's intent.

As the interviewer, Maddow never once raised her voice to speak over Stewart. The "Daily Show" host, in turn, relied on calm logic as his most valuable rhetorical skill. "I love the voices that I hear on MSNBC," Stewart said. "But I am a climate scientist."

"The problem with the 24-hour news cycle is it's built for a very particular thing -- 9/11," Stewart said. "Other than that, there really isn't 24 hours of stuff to talk about." In turn, "you have to elevate the passion of everything else that happens," he said.

"I feel more of a kinship to Jerry Seinfeld than to what you guys do," Stewart said. "He is able to comedically articulate an intangible for people."

"Does that make sense?" Stewart asked, again reinforcing how much mutual respect was in the room. "I don't care where it comes from. If it's right, it's right," he said. There, Maddow agreed.

The entire discussion was wonky, often convoluted and entirely unlike typical talks on cable news. It was a dinner party discourse, sans alcohol, performed by two professionals with minor ideological differences but a willingness to use a magnifying glass for intellectual gain. The oscillation between media criticism and political discussion was often dizzying and, at times, insightful. The snake nibbled at its own tail. Still, anyone calling for more civilized debate in our political and media processes could hold up Maddow and Stewart as exemplary. It's a shame it too often only works among friends.

-- Joe Coscarelli