The Genius of Jon Stewart

I have lately begun to watch Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, while spending a couple months at my brother’s house where cable options abound (having lived the last several years in New York City, I didn’t have cable until the 9/11 attacks took out the broadcast antennas on top of the World Trade Center, after which I subscribed to ultra-basic, network-only cable). What strikes me about Stewart’s Show is not so much that it is a far funnier news parody than Saturday Night Live or elsewhere, but that The Daily Show is usually far better news than anywhere else. Not only does Stewart devote more time to stories (their humour often isn’t apparent in the bite-size pieces local news regurgitates every night) but even given the 6 minutes or so he gives to celebrity interviews attempting to plug whatever their latest hopeful star-turn is, Stewart still manages, most nights, to devote more time to real news than local broadcasters, desperately trying to lure someone, anyone, to tune in with come-ons about the near-danger of household appliances and “go-get-um” consumer “activists” (honestly, there aren’t enough ironic quotation marks in the world to mark the true breach with reality the use of the word “activist” represents here…).

But the real reason I find myself so taken with Stewart’s take on the news is not that he actually recognizes the importance (or lack thereof) of whatever stories he relays, but because he, more than just about anyone else I can think of, highlights the absolute absurdity of the stories that are passed off as news elsewhere. What George Bush or (more likely) Ari Fleischer hands reporters from the White House, what corporate shirts hand us from their PR departments, what the media in general touts as the Next Big Thing or the Latest Breakthrough Discovery–and what local news and the mega-news organizations like CNN, BBC, and (though it pains me to describe it even as “news”) Fox pass on to us with a straight face–Stewart recognizes as just the latest fanciful pronouncement from a marketing spin machine that uses the same techniques to sell ideas and ideology as it uses to sell scouring pads and tampons.

This goes deeper than just recognizing the humour inherent in almost anything George Bush is allowed to say publically, or even mocking the general news media’s refusal to ask anything hard from their informants–Stewart’s reporting matters because, in pointing out the absurdity of any given news story (Trent Lott’s appearance on BET is a good example) Stewart is actually presenting the real news, which is that IT’S ALL ABSURD! The news in America, circa 2003, is not that someone said something ignorant or that some company introduced a truly stupid product, but that we have slipped–I don’t know exactly when or how–into a realm of absurdity that engulfs us. And, even more troublingly, we accept it. The fact that we as citizens are debating Gulf War II: The Sins of the Fathers is a case in point–not because it doesn’t matter whether we go to war or not, but because at no point along the way did we ever even hint that a war with Iraq might be something that we the American people think is important. It’s absurd because we have swallowed the talking points and agenda items fed to us by the White House staff and a handful of Congressional offices, thoroughly sanitized for our consumption by the general media, and served up to us along with the latest news about J’Lo and Ben and interviews with Joe Millionaire. We have taken to “debating” America’s position vis-a-vis Iraq in the terms set for us by people whose interests are not our own, people concerned more with the marketing spin a hot-topic issue will give their next campaign than with, to cite only a handful of ways a war with Iraq touches the daily lives of most American citizens, the safety of American soldiers not only from Iraqis but from the impotent men who would have them fight their wars for market share, the continuing and even expanding reliance of Americans on foreign oil to meet our energy needs, and the protection of Americans from terrorists who will certainly not see an American Crusade on Muslim soil as the wonderful expansion of freedom in the world that our leaders keep promising us it will be.

So, kudos to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. It’s not often that a critical voice appears on mainstream television, and when it does–as was the case for Michael Moore’s TV Nation–it usually doesn’t last very long. I hope that Stewart stays with us for a while, and may his ratings swell.

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