Revisiting McCaughey-v-Stewart

As I mentioned this morning, I thought Betsy McCaughey was even more blithely disconnected from the world of reality than I had expected -- but that she was weirdly "effective" against Jon Stewart, since there was no way to shame her by pointing out that what she said was untrue. She would just smile, mug at the audience in an "isn't he cute!" way, and say, No, I'm right.

Not all readers agreed. Below and after the jump, a sample of dissenting views, with brief retort at the end.

Objection 1: The Audience Is In on the Joke

...I disagree that talking over Jon Stewart the way people do in appearances on Fox News is an effective tactic for the guest. It might be better than some of the other options, but it backfires for a weird reason, one that might be harder to see if you don't watch the show regularly.



From its inception in 1997, the distinguishing shtick that makes the show unique is a type of edited interview segment in which the show's "reporters" interview obscure and completely crazy people. The subjects have received some local press attention for doing something bizarre and they're desperate for media attention. The reporters pretend to be mainstream press rather than comedians, and they use a deadpan style that allows the interviewees to provide most of the humor. What struck me about the McCaughey interview, and the recent interview of Orly Taitz by Stephen Colbert, was that Stewart and Colbert are clearly adapting the "crazy person" interview techniques to their live in-studio host interviews with guests that don't agree with them.



The normal host interviews vary a lot but they are always a two-way conversation with some socially well-adjusted give and take. In these two recent interviews, as the guest acts more unstoppable and enthusiastic unhinged when discussing "their" topic, the interview slides into the familiar "crazy person" style. That's a cue for the show's regular audience to frame the discussion and the interviewee in a very different way.


Objection 2: It Worked for Betsy, but It Won't Work for Others

I expect you are very right about this being an interview that will be studied by right wing operatives for some time to come. However, I feel like you overlooked a couple important pieces which may make this scenario unrepeatable (particularly if those at the Daily Show are paying attention).
First, I feel that the interview was fairly unique for the show. I don't think that this ever really was an interview as much as it was a debate. That was pretty clearly how McCaughey was approaching it and I think Stewart's preparation reflected a similar mindset. For both sides, this was about getting their view of things out there. [JF note: I wish it had been more of a debate -- and that Stewart had come in there prepared to say, "Look, the last ten things you've claimed about health-care plans have been false. Why should we believe this?"]

Secondly, I felt that Stewart went out of his way to be deferential and to let her speak her piece. I suspect this is because he was aware of the fact that he was clearly taking a side from the beginning and didn't want to use the power of the show to bowl her over.

Thirdly, unlike when Kristol, Huckabee and others on the right go on, this seemed to be purely about message for McCaughey and not about the messenger at all. [Great point] This one shot, get the message out approach allowed her to disregard Stewart to a degree that would severely undermine what most guests are trying to accomplish. Guests always have an agenda, whether it is pushing a book, their candidacy or their reputation as an influence peddler. It is fairly rare for a low profile guest to go on purely to talk about an issue and I can't think of another instance where that person has views so different from Stewart or his audience (Posh Spice being the possible exception). When other guests have treated the show like a podium, Stewart has been much quicker to call them on talking to the audience rather than him. Not sure why he wasn't last night.

Finally, there is the issue of timing. McCaughey snuck in as the last interview before a three week hiatus, so her interview gets to stand unedited and unresponded to. I'm not sure how much editing goes into a typical Daily Show interview, but I got the sense that had this not been right before vacation he would have kept dragging her kicking and screaming back to facts and then cleaned it up before air. Then there is always the follow up during the first segment of the next day's show. With particularly contentious guests in the past, Stewart has revisited the subject of the interview on the next show, reiterating facts the guest was denying or how statements conflicted with other appearances the guest had made. Not the strongest approach, but effective none the less.

I suspect that this issue of timing is why the Daily Show typically does more softball or fluff interviews on Thursdays and particularly before breaks. I'm not sure what caused the producers to deviate from that in this instance but I doubt it is a decision that will be repeated.

That being said, there is a lot from last night's interview which can be studied and learned from by those interested in getting a leg up on Stewart. And I'm sure that there will be plenty of people doing just that. However, my suspicion is that nobody will be studying the tape as closely as the people at the Daily Show. I doubt that anybody will be able to rely on those techniques to effectively disarm Stewart again, at least not to the degree we saw last night.

Objection 3: The Gender Factor

I think in comparing her interview with Cramer, you overlook the gender dynamic. It's possible Stewart didn't go after her as hard as he did Cramer so as to avoid looking like a bully. I don't agree but it's possible.

Objection 4: Not an objection at all!

Your insight of McCaughey's total lack of self awareness is right on....she simply doesn't know what she doesn't know, and therefore, she plows on in her single-track path knocking out anyone and anything that gets in her way.  Just like Sarah Palin....these two women have an incredibly deep-seated love affair with themselves (taking place in their heads) that the words 'lights, camera, action' ignite and they're 'on.' 

Which is exactly why Stewart 'didn't get' Betsy and slumped over and gave up half way through the segment...she's nuts.

There are more, for later. To clarify a point I sensed but didn't mention earlier: At his most ferocious, by which I mean with either Cramer or Kristol, Jon Stewart has come right out of the box with a dossier of the person's past errors as a premise for the questions. I guess I was expecting something of the sort, which is the main reason I felt she "escaped."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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