American politics is fast becoming a joke.
Herman Cain’s recent inability to answer a basic question about foreign policy with anything more than a few mumbled words, a shrug and a brain fart is the latest in a long line of examples of US politicians displaying embarrassing stupidity. News anchor Katie Couric only had to ask Sarah Palin which newspapers she read to leave the Vice Presidential candidate looking befuddled and confused in 2008. Two years later, the Republican Party shot itself in the foot again by nominating Christine O’Donnell, a self-proclaimed former witch, to contest a Senate seat.
The ineptitude of America’s politicians is matched only by the incompetence of the nation’s news media. Desperate to be seen as objective, and driven by a chronic fear of alienating all-important advertisers and powerful individuals in Washington, mainstream television news outlets are loathed to criticise statements made by either party – no matter how ridiculous such statements might be.
The result of this is a chronically misinformed American public. In 2005, for example, a poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had been involved in planning and orchestrating 9/11. They can hardly be blamed: the Bush administration’s false assertion that the Iraqi dictator had direct links to Al-Qaeda had been regurgitated as fact repeatedly in the mainstream media.
Yet with US politics rapidly descending into farce, one man keeps the nation sane. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is watched by millions of Americans. In fact, a poll published by the Huffington Post in 2009 showed that as many as 40 percent of people under the age of 40 believed that the programme, along with it’s equally wonderful cousin The Colbert Report, will soon replace mainstream news outlets as America’s main source of news. Not bad going for a comedy show which, until relatively recently, was preceded on Comedy Central by a programme about puppets making prank phone calls.
Stewart appeals to his viewers chiefly because of his propensity to poke fun at the hypocrisy apparent on both sides of the political establishment. He combines genuinely hilarious insights into the often banal goings-on in American politics with an interview technique unparalleled in contemporary journalism. Unbound by the commitment to false neutrality that cripples organisations such as CNN and NBC, Stewart is free to engage with his guests and challenge them as he desires.
His interview with CNBC host Jim Cramer was particularly brilliant. He claimed that CNBC, with its presenters repeated insistence that “everything is fine” during the economic meltdown of 2008, “shirked its journalistic duty by believing corporate lies”; and suggested that the network was ultimately beholden to the huge corporations on which it reported.
Similarly, his 2004 appearance on the CNN debate show Crossfire is the stuff of legend. Crossfire was intended to be a forum for the political debate of the day. It pitted a liberal pundit, former Clinton strategist Paul Begala, against a conservative pundit, bow-tie bothering Tucker Carlson. Together, the pair would shamelessly recite their respective party lines under the pretence of ‘locking horns’ on any given topic until the end credits rolled.
“I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad,” began Stewart. “It’s not so much that it’s bad, as that it’s hurting America. I wanted to come here today and say: stop hurting America.”
“What you do is not honest”, Stewart continued, to great applause from the audience. “What you do is partisan hackery. You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”
Embarrassed by Stewart’s thorough evisceration of the format, Carlson did his best to ease the tension. “Wait, I thought you were going to be funny,” he smirked. “Come on. Be funny.” “No,” replied Stewart. “I’m not going to be your monkey. I watch your show every day and it’s so painful to watch.” CNN cancelled the programme just three months later.
It is Jon Stewart’s ability to rise above and take on the partisan hackery that blights the American political system that makes him a hero. In a country increasingly divided along traditional Democrat and Republican lines – a country in which barely accountable politicians are allowed, unchecked, to make blatantly false claims on national television, and where the outright lies of comical candidates make a farce of the federal system – Jon Stewart is a welcome antidote to a tedious and damaging status quo.
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