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 context."
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.