The Daily Show: Speaking truth to power or setting the boundaries of acceptable debate?

As November 4 approaches, The Daily Show is likely to have a disproportionately large effect on the political debate surrounding the US Presidential Elections.  


Studies consistently show that a large proportion of young Americans choose to get their news from this satirical half-hour "fake news" programme aired on Comedy Central four nights a week, rather than watch the mainstream news broadcasts on CNN, NBC or CBS.  With an audience of 1.6 million, The Daily Show not only skewers the gaffes and doublespeak of the incumbent Bush Administration, but also mocks the often Alice in Wonderland world of the mainstream media.  


Despite the show’s popularity, Jon Stewart – the show’s sharp-witted host and liberal poster boy – has always denied The Daily Show is serious journalism, arguing that its primary purpose is to make people laugh, quipping "the show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls."


However, when you consider the high regard in which many young people hold the show, Stewart’s defence begins to ring a little hollow.   It is common knowledge that when he took over hosting The Daily Show in 1999, Stewart pushed for a more issues and news driven approach, ditching the previous character-based, celebrity format.  This change in style has led to a string of recent high profile political interviews including Barack Obama, John McCain, Bill Clinton, Evo Morales and even Pakistan‘s President Pervez Musharraf.


This focus on serious issues was confirmed by a 2006 Indiana University study which found The Daily Show had news coverage on a par with traditional broadcast network newscasts (although, interestingly, the study found that both had a relatively low level of substantive coverage).  Furthermore, incredibly a Pew Research poll last year found that the ‘fake news anchor’ Stewart was the fourth most admired journalist in the US – tied with real news anchors including Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS.  


The show has also been a huge success with the critics, receiving two Peabody Awards – one step down from the Pulitzer awards apparently – for its coverage of the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections, along with eleven Emmy Awards.  More importantly, the liberal elite has taken the show to its heart, with PBS journalist Bill Moyers arguing "you simply can’t understand American politics in the new millennium without The Daily Show".  Michiko Kakutani goes even further in his recent story about the programme in the New York Times, praising Stewart for "speaking truth to power".


The problem is that while Stewart – earning a reported $14 million a year – certainly does criticise the present Administration he also holds a slew of naïve views and assumptions about the workings of American power that would make his high school socialist hero Eugene Debs turn in his grave.  For example, Stewart’s criticisms of US foreign policy are frustratingly limited to talking about ‘strategic errors’ rather than a radical analysis that highlights how, since 1945, the US has, in the words of British historian Mark Curtis, "been systematically opposed" to "peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World".


Witness Stewart’s seven-minute teary-eyed monologue at the start of the first show aired after 9/11.  Like many other liberals at the time Stewart seems to have been politically paralysed by the atrocity, happily swallowing the US Government’s simplistic, self-serving explanation of the attack.  According to Stewart "what the whole situation is about" is "the difference between closed and open.  The difference between free and burdened… it’s democracy…. They can’t shut it down."  That’s right Jon, it’s nothing to do with US foreign policy in the Muslim world, or the more than one million Iraqis who died because of US/UK sanctions or the continuing US support of Israel.  No, it’s about the very healthy democracy in the your country where approximately half the electorate usually don’t bother to vote.


With his apartment overlooking the World Trade Center, maybe Stewart can be forgiven for losing the plot in the emotionally charged times after the attack.  But what are we to make of his jocular, back-slapping interview with Senator John McCain in 2007 (who is apparently a personal friend of Stewart’s)?  Discussing the occupation of Iraq with the Republican Presidential candidate, The Daily Show host asserted: "They [the Iraqis] are fighting each other.  We are there keeping them from killing each other."  Stewart seems to be unaware of the US Government’s own figures that show the overwhelming majority of attacks by the insurgents are against the US-led coalition forces rather than against each other.  Ditto the 2006 Lancet survey which highlighted how, rather than "keeping Iraqis from killing each other", the US forces were infact a major source of killing in Iraq.  


The last straw for me was Stewart’s ‘softball’ interview last month with Tony Blair – a man widely seen as a compulsive liar by many in the UK, and as a potential prisoner in The Hague by those who took a close interest in the lead up to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.


Flipping uncomfortably between strained jokiness and grave seriousness, Blair spouts (largely unchallenged) nonsense about how no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other (the US vs. Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973 and Nicaragua in the 1980s?)  Clearly unaware of Eduardo Galeano’s dictum that "in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions, but to disguise them", Stewart came out with this incredible nugget about George Bush: "He is a big freedom guy.  He believes if everyone was a democracy there would be no more fighting."  That’s right folks.  The problem is that the US is trying too darn hard to spread democracy around the world.  This explains why Bush is so close to the Saudi Arabian royal family, and why the US invaded oil-rich Iraq, bombed Afghanistan back to the stone age and supported the 2002 coup against the democratically elected Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  


Although it sounds like an oxymoron, comedy can be both serious and radical.  "There is one political party in America, and that is – THE BUSINESS PARTY", wrote the legendary Texan comic Bill Hicks in 1992, while British comedian Robert Newman explains in his stand-up routine that "the central political battle of our time is between corporate power and democracy."  In contrast, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show is largely confined to the playground politics that dominate the degraded political discourse in the US today – liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, Tweedle Dee vs. Tweedle Dum.


Stewart is surely right to state the mainstream news media in the US is "hurting America", as he did during a heated exchange on CNN’s now-defunct Crossfire in 2004.   However, as a programme that is adversarial but always within very strict ideological boundaries, surely it is also true The Daily Show has its own role to play in what US dissident Noam Chomsky calls ‘the manufacture of consent’: "Thus far and no further".



Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, England.

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