The TV anchor was taken aback. Unlike the other
network news anchors or the New York Times, he considered
the disclosure that the Bush Administration had granted a major
contract to Halliburton for postwar construction of oil wells
in Iraq to be a scandalous lead story. He noted that hearing the
news "does make me feel like the government just took a [bleep]
on my chest." He then turned to his "senior" senior correspondent,
Stephen Colbert, and asked what he made of the Halliburton deal.
"Keeping in mind that Halliburton was a major contributor to the
Republican campaign and that Vice President Cheney is its former
CEO, this move by the government is extremely..." and then Colbert
paused. "Unpleasant?" offered the anchor, "nauseating?" Colbert
said that nothing quite captured it; what came closest was a German
word he translated to mean "to throw one's hands up in mute horror
and in this state of paralyzing dread to realize that those you
need to trust most have instead confirmed your darkest fears."
But Colbert said even that "seems a little namby-pamby in this
Welcome to The Daily Show on Comedy
Central, the medically prescribed antidote to CNN and Fox. Hosted
by Jon Stewart since 1999, this parody of the news is dedicated
to expressing utter incredulity over what Team Bush tries to get
away with week in and week out. As of this spring, a weekly compilation
of the show airs on CNN International, which boasts 160 million
viewers. The show has won kudos in Australia, Canada and Britain,
where one reporter wrote, "It is difficult to believe that they
have actually let him on air." Stewart's on-air persona is that
of the outraged individual who, comparing official pronouncements
with his own basic common sense, simply cannot believe what he--and
all of us--are expected to swallow. The approach of Stewart and
his "reporters" is not to attack Bush policies as ideologically
problematic; instead, they expose them as utterly absurd, as nonsense,
deranged. When Rumsfeld issued his warning to Syria and Iran that
the United States would hold them accountable if they interfered
in any way in the invasion of Iraq, Stewart asked in barely restrained
mock horror, "Do you see what he just did there? He's starting
another war." Central to the show's sensibilities, and to its
success, is Stewart's insistence that the news generated by Team
Bush be treated on its own terms, not as news at all but as fatuous
PR, ludicrously out of touch with reality.
Because Stewart is a comic and not a politician,
one would expect that he would skewer Al Gore, were he President,
with comparable glee. He has, for example, blasted Tom Daschle's
criticism of the war by reminding viewers that Daschle voted for
the war. Indeed, Stewart told the London Guardian that
the show is neither Democratic nor Republican but simply seeks
to represent the "politically disappointed." His special target
is spin: "We're out to stop that political trend of repeating
things again and again until people are forced to believe them."
Nonetheless, he has consistently opposed the war, even in his
more sober interviews with guests like the prowar comic and Saturday
Night Live alum Dennis Miller.
Unlike other late-night comedy shows, which
safely go for cheap laughs by dissing Saddam, The Daily Show
has recaptured the pre-9/11 sensibilities that prevailed about
Team Bush before the attacks encased him in Teflon. The studio
audience howls and applauds in delight at Stewart's irreverence.
Its core audience (73 percent) is the coveted 18-to-49 demographic.
And here's some cheering news: More people (4 million) tune in
to The Daily Show in a given week than watched Fox news
at the height of the war (3.3 million).
Stewart has a keen eye for Bush's hypocrisies.
After Baghdad had fallen, he showed excerpts of Bush's television
address to the Iraqi people. "You are a good and gifted people,"
the President intoned unctuously. "You deserve better than tyranny
and corruption and torture chambers." Stewart, sticking out a
cocked forefinger as if he were chucking a toddler under the chin,
cooed in a high voice, "Yes you do, yes you do, you're a very
good country, ga, ga, ga, goo goo."
As part of his assault on the triumph of right-wing
PR, Stewart reserves special derision for Fox News. After making
fun of Iraqi state TV as a mere government mouthpiece, Stewart
asked, "Imagine a government that has an entire TV station to
lay out its agenda." He then aired Fox footage, after which he
appeared to be hypnotized, chanting, "Must support war, tax cut
good." In another show, he noted, "This war has truly belonged
to Fox. Not only did they start it...they managed to offer fair
and balanced coverage." We then saw Fox footage of a soldier saying
hi to his family and closing with, "You're watching Fox News."
Stewart couldn't believe it: "They've got soldiers doing station
IDs!" He then played a montage Fox aired of the "sights and sounds...of
operation Iraqi Freedom," which showed massive bombs exploding
in Baghdad accompanied by appallingly sentimental New Age piano
music. "That was real," Stewart confirmed in disbelief. "Sounds
like our troops have liberated a Yanni concert."
Yes, it is important to itemize, carefully
and seriously, all the reasons Team Bush is lethally dangerous
to all except the upper echelons of the Fortune 500. But The
Daily Show reminds us that ridicule, scorn and laughter may
be some of the most effective weapons of all.