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I just saw this and CBS has a good run down of what went down. I think this exchange highlights one of the themes of today’s “infotainment”—confirmatory bias. Confirmatory bias is the psychological tendency to seek information that confirms existing beliefs. The news network pundits on Fox and MSNBC have made careers out of selecting issues and tailoring coverage for their respective conservative and liberal audiences. The audiences have grown accustomed to the “selective hate machine”, a term coined by Jon Stewart in describing Fox News.

Foxes & Hedgehogs

Stewart has made a career out of being a lampooning satirist who doesn’t stick to a strict ideological script, but he also knows who his audience is. Ironically, Stewart is more of a fox than a hedgehog, as he’s free to be an equal opportunity basher, er, critic. A few years back, Philip Tetlock used the fox and hedgehog metaphor to describe economic punditry::

“The most important factor was not how much education or experience the experts had but how they thought. You know the famous line that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin borrowed from a Greek poet, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’? The better forecasters were like Berlin’s foxes: self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability. The less successful forecasters were like hedgehogs: They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything. The media often love hedgehogs.”

The Culture War

Stewart has cultivated an audience looking for infotainment with a ton of snark and less of a penchant for sacred cows. His positioning as a “fox” is smart, as it differentiates him from the ideologues. Conservative hedgehog pundits like O’Reilly who whip up frenzy for an older demographic serve as particularly good fodder. In the clip, he loves poking fun at O’Reilly’s positioning in the political punditry market by taking jabs by using pop culture rap references with more than a hint of condescension. Stewart used similar tactics lampooning Newt Gingrich’s announcing of his candidacy on Twitter.

Nevertheless, Stewart brings up a good point that this is all manufactured outrage against Barack Obama. While O’Reilly is just revisiting the culture war, I’m not sure the same levers used in the past are going to work against Obama. He’s not an easy target. In fact, I would argue that the dissatisfaction the hard left has with Obama has everything to do with him positioning his administration to win the culture war, not put it to rest.