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Jon Stewart vs. the Political Pundits

Political Satire 101

by ALAN MAASS

WE’RE SUPPOSED to live in a “beacon of democracy,” with a highly developed political system that makes us the envy of the world. So why is the host of a self-described “fake news” program responsible for many of the few-and-far-between moments of honesty in this year’s endless, mind-numbing, soul-deadening election campaign?

Jon Stewart and his fellow comedians at Comedy Central’s Daily Show are the unlikely stars of Election 2004. Their half-hour show–a satire of a nightly television news show that appears Monday through Thursday nights–has increased its ratings by 20 percent over last year as the presidential campaign has ground on toward Election Day. Stewart and nearly 20 other people who write or appear on the show are also responsible for the country’s best-selling book–America (The Book), a hilarious parody of the textbooks that grade school students continue to endure in government and history classes.

But Stewart’s notoriety reached new heights last week when he routed the puffed-up windbags on CNN’s political “debate” show, Crossfire.

Stewart went on Crossfire to promote the book, but he refused to play along when blowhard hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala tried to clown around with him. Instead, he slammed Crossfire and the whole media machine for serving as a giant echo chamber for the dishonest, cynical sound bites of the powerful.

“Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations,” Stewart said, as Carlson tried to shout him down. “You’re not too rough on them. You’re part of their strategies. You’re partisan–what do you call it–hacks.” Thanks to the Internet, the 15-minute segment has been watched and savored by millions.

The Crossfire appearance goes straight to the reason of why Stewart and the Daily Show are so popular. With the corporate journalism organized around flattering the politicians, instead of challenging them–no matter how outrageous the lies or how bloated the rhetoric–Stewart’s “fake news” ends up being more truthful about the reality of U.S. politics than all the Crossfires and Hardballs piled up in a great steaming heap.

John Kerry and the Democrats do get off easier–the show definitely saves its venom for the right wing, especially the strutting liars and warmongers of the Bush administration. But the Daily Show’s best moments are when it exposes the absurdities of the Washington system as a whole–and that inevitably means dishing up shots at both pro-corporate parties, since both are responsible for propping it up, even if the Republicans are more outrageously corrupt and cynical about it, especially at election time.

The same themes come across in America (The Book). Designed as a fake textbook, it comes complete with the standard semi-helpful illustrations and charts (“The Cabinet: Yes Men of Freedom”), discussion questions (“If you lived in a monarchy, would you rather be a king or a slave? Why?”) and suggested classroom activities (“Disenfranchise a Black student”).

The usual explanation of “how a bill becomes a law” is made much more realistic with the inclusion of “amendment-sneakin’ time,” in which lawmakers load on pork-barrel provisions, and “passing lobbyist muster,” where the hired hands of Corporate America “assist our representatives in any last-minute changes in language, content or intent necessary to insure their reelection funds.”

In a chapter on the media, the book abandons all pretence in a heartfelt rant. “These spineless cowards in the press have finally gone too far,” reads the first draft, before, uh, editorial revisions. “‘Was the president successful in convincing the country?’ Who gives a shit? Why not tell us if what he said was true? And the excuses. My God, the excuses! “Hey, we just give the people what they want. ‘What can we do, this administration is secretive.’ ‘But the last season of Friends really is news.’ The unmitigated gall of these weak-willed…You’re supposed to be helping us, you indecent piles of shit!”

Stewart and the Daily Show writers get in their election-year shots in a special 24-page section–plus a pullout feature that could have been produced by Socialist Worker: a boxing poster for a match pitting “Skull vs. Bones: The Thrilla in Vanilla. This time, it’s presidential.”

There are some misses when the book stoops to stupid and sometimes offensive stereotypes–something that seems to happen especially often when the subject roams beyond the borders of the U.S. And as on the Daily Show, Stewart and his fellow writers tend to be cynical about anyone associated with politics, including progressive and left-wing activists outraged by the very hypocrisy that the book points out, but committed to doing something about it.

But if your spirits are dragging under the weight of the hypocrisy and lies of this miserable election, you’ll want a copy of America (The Book) on hand for election night and after.