The Daily Show, Crossfire, and the Will to Truth
‘The most holy function of comedy is to speak truth where truth is not present. It is a holy burning sacrament, people, and it shall make you free. And wherever there are pundits bloviating, there are billowing clouds of mistruths and a need for the sweet salvation of satire.’ (post to TC’s Ministry of Propaganda, 21 March 2005)
‘Our standards for what passes as real journalism are, collectively, at such a stupifying, mind-boggling all-time low in the United States that it takes the words of a jester to cut through the bullshit and strike a chord with the general populace.’ (Comment posted to Joi Ito blog, 19 October 2004)
‘Isn't it kind of sad that we get more substance from a comedy show than from the news media?’ (post to alt.politics.bush, 10 September 2005).1. Introduction: Salvation through Satire
For those invested in the ideal that a news press should serve the democratic function of informing its citizenry, Jon Stewart’s nightly-broadcast news parody The Daily Show (TDS) offers a touchstone of sanity. The glimpse of a reality more in tune with an experience of many Americans stands in sharp contrast to the otherwise surreal media coverage by ‘mainstream’ media sources. Since 9/11, mainstream coverage ranges from shockingly uncritical perspectives even in the so-called liberal media, to ultra-conservative propaganda such as FOX news, to purveyors of Bush administration press briefings. Jon Stewart’s ‘court-jester’ critiques not only offer a much-needed antidote, but represent a niche of media convergence for news content as well as circulation.
In 2004, the top-cited blogosphere media story was the appearance of Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire talk show. Crossfire was a ‘bi-partisan’ talk show, hosted by two anchors ostensibly representing Republican and Democrat political views. Jon Stewart’s appearance was billed as an interview regarding what was at the time his newly-released book America. On the show, Jon Stewart shocks the hosts and the viewers by refusing to adopt his usual funny-man persona, and instead delivers a scathing critique of the talk show for performing a disservice to America and to the function of the media. He accuses them of hurting America through partisan hackery theatre, failing to engage genuine civilised debate, and not serving news television’s responsibility to public discourse. What occurs on camera is indeed surprising and even shocking. As Stewart makes his critiques insistent and refuses to change the subject, the right wing host Tucker Carlson becomes distinctly defensive and hostile, accusing Stewart himself of failing to serve these functions as a journalist, at which point Stewart raises another crucial question: namely, whether a comedy show like The Daily Show can or should be held accountable to the same standards of journalistic integrity that Stewart is demanding of a serious news show.
600,000 people watched the television broadcast and millions watched the online streaming of Jon Stewart skewering the talk show hosts for debasing journalism in the name of political debate. In this live televised event, Stewart appeals for ‘civilised discourse’, a ‘responsibility to public discourse’, and to ‘stop hurting America’ with partisan hackery and theatre that masquerades as news on CNN. One cannot miss the irony of the ‘most trusted name in fake news’ making the call for responsible journalism. Elsewhere, I argue that this ideal is associated with a paradoxical awareness: on the one hand, a ‘postmodern’ sensibility of all the world’s a fiction, while on the other a publicly-expressed demand for truthfulness (Boler 2006a; Boler 2006b).
This essay explores the ways in which frustration with mainstream news media is expressed not only in The Daily Show, but also in the watershed moment of Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire. The landmark moment within online and news media-concerned audiences illustrates not only the soaring lack of faith in media as serving democracy, but also the increasing use of online communications to construct and express a counter-public sensibility and ‘reality’ check about the insanity that is supposed to represent news. As one fan proclaims, ‘Jon Stewart is the voice of sanity’ (posted by Orville Redenbacher 15 October 2004).
This discussion of Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire reflects one strand of my larger three-year research project (funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council) on ‘digital dissent’ and the use of online spaces to engage political participation (‘Rethinking Media, Democracy And Citizenship: New Media Practices and Online Digital Dissent After September 11’). The perception that the media is failing democracy is potently evidenced across four sites that we are currently studying in thisresearch project. In this essay, I illustrate through analysis of one of these sites, online discussions about the Crossfire episode, a renewed demand for truthfulness and accountability expressed by ‘consumers’ of U.S. news media. I begin by detailing the public response to Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire, with an analysis of how his critiques of the function of the press represent a widely-shared concern about the state of democracy in the United States. I offer a description of The Daily Show and its significance in the U.S. political context. I then discuss the ways in which Jon Stewart as court jester represents the contemporary form of political satire that speaks ‘truth to power’.
With the invaluable assistance of graduate research assistants funded through this project, as principal investigator I have closely studied the extensive online discussion of the Crossfire episode. The approach reflected in this essay foregrounds numerous quotations from online discussions. In part this is to evidence the public ‘nerve’ touched by the Crossfire event. The other reason for my extensive use of quotes is to illustrate a primary inquiry of my research project: namely, how the internet is being used to create counter-publics of civic participation that reflect frustration with mainstream media. Research assistant Catherine Burwell offers a concise summary of the methodological approach we employed in examining TDS and Crossfire:
In this early phase of the project, it was our intent to gather data related to The Daily Show that could be used in later discourse analysis. After a preliminary scan of blogs referring to The Daily Show, we decided to concentrate our efforts on Jon Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in October 2004. This proved to be a rich source of data. Not only did a Google search using the terms ‘Jon Stewart’ and ‘Crossfire’ yield 260,000 results, but discussion threads and blog posts related to Stewart’s appearance revealed in-depth discussions of mainstream media failings, government corruption and the role of journalists in democracy. In order to generate as wide a range of opinions and ideas as possible, we collected data from a variety of sources, including discussion threads, fan websites, blogs and comments posted to blogs. We located these sources using a variety of search engines, most particularly Google Groups, Google Blog, Blogger and Technorati. In all, data was collected from more than 60 sites.
‘Stewart's naked appeal to his hosts to "please stop, stop, stop. Stop hurting America," had a loopy, apocalyptic power. It burned a hole in the screen, like Peter Finch as the crazed anchorman in Network, bellowing, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.”’ (Dana Stevens on Slate, 18 October 2004)
Overnight, Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire offered a shorthand for the failings of contemporary news media. While such critiques have been made with much greater depth by media critics such as Bill Moyers, Robert McChesney, Arundhati Roy, Paul Krugman, and Lewis Lapham amongst others, the Crossfire moment dominates bandwidth with its populist appeal, and has become part of the vernacular for many TV and online audiences unfamiliar with these other established media critics.
The following offers a brief glimpse of how this event comes to qualify as the ‘top cited media event in the blogosophere in 2004.’ A google search for ‘jon stewart Crossfire’ yields 366,000 hits. If one adds the word ‘blog’, the number is 191,000. On many blogs that addressed the Crossfire event, there are extensive comments and postings made by blog readers. For example, on media matters there are 295 posts in response to the transcript of Crossfire. Talk Left closed its comments after 97 comments were posted in the five days following 14 October.
A good sense of the tone and context surrounding the reporting of the event can be found in the online journal Slate’s coverage of the media event.
I just have to say a few words about Jon Stewart's live freakout on Crossfire last Friday. Well, perhaps not so much "freakout" as "searing moment of lucidity."…Hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala had invited Stewart on the show to "take a break from campaign politics" … Within less than a minute, the interview degenerated (or ascended, depending on your point of view) into an encounter of the sort not often — OK, never — seen on the talk-show circuit. Stewart was like the cool college roommate you bring home for Thanksgiving only to spend the evening squirming as he savages your parents' bourgeois values. "Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations," he told the dueling pundits. "You're part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks." ... When Carlson goaded Stewart to "be funny. Come on, be funny," Stewart responded, "I'm not going to be your monkey." (18 October 2004)
Arguably the most often quoted, signature line of the exchange is Stewart’s plea: ‘Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America’ (49,800 hits for ‘stop hurting America crossfire blog’ on 21 May 2006)
The point that follows his plea is his critique that Crossfire is engaging in theatre, rather than the kind of debate important to journalism:
STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations. And we're left out there to mow our lawns.
BEGALA: By beating up on them? You just said we're too rough on them when they make mistakes.
STEWART: No, no, no, you're not too rough on them. You're part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks.
Despite the CNN hosts trying to derail him from this point, Stewart returns to the issue of news as theater:
STEWART: But the thing is that this — you're doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great.
BEGALA: We do, do...
STEWART: It's not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.
Halfway through his Crossfire appearance, Stewart makes the next central point, which is also referred to frequently in the online chatter:
STEWART: You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.
CARLSON: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.
STEWART: You need to go to one.
Finally, I would not want to miss mentioning Stewart’s rejoinder when Carlson tries to turn the tables, and spends quite a bit of airtime flogging Stewart for not asking hard enough questions of presidential candidate John Kerry:
STEWART: It's not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. And I will tell you why I know it.
CARLSON: You had John Kerry on your show and you sniff his throne and you're accusing us of partisan hackery?
CARLSON: You've got to be kidding me. He comes on and you...
STEWART: You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.
STEWART: What is wrong with you?
Finally, Stewart reflects:
STEWART: You know, it's interesting to hear you talk about my responsibility….I didn't realise that — and maybe this explains quite a bit.
CARLSON: No, the opportunity to...
STEWART: ... is that the news organisations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity. … But my point is this. If your idea of confronting me is that I don't ask hard-hitting enough news questions, we're in bad shape, fellows.
This last exchange reveals Stewart’s comment that ‘if news organisations are looking to Comedy Central for cues on integrity…we’re in bad shape.’ Interestingly, in online discussions this particular concern is not often expressed — rather, people feel that indeed, TDS sets a new standard for journalism, by essentially doing a better job than does the mainstream media.3. The Phenomenon of The Daily Show
The Daily Show (TDS) with Jon Stewart, ‘the most trusted name in fake news’, is transmitted four nights a week in the U.S. and Canada on cable television and often on another local network channel. The format of this highly-popular news satire is to use ‘real’ news clips from mainstream media — generally about Washington D.C. politics — commented on through Stewart’s satirical and ironic commentary about the media representations as well as about the actions and speech of the politicians represented. Aired in Europe through CNN as well through a half-hour once weekly version, TDS is also streamed online both through Comedy Central’s official site as well as on mirrored independent streaming. In addition, clips from the Daily Show are widely distributed online through applications such as bit torrent and through websites such as ifilm and You Tube, where they can be posted by fans.Jon Stewart became host of TDS in 1999, with a steadily increasing audience which reached 1.7 million television viewers in early 2006, a wide audience who view TDS online, and a larger segment of age 18-31 viewers than any other U.S. nightly news show. (Friend 2002: 28) The increasingly international familiarity with Jon Stewart is evidenced by a recent examples in which The Australian spiced up a story about George W. Bush’s latest plan for ‘border control’ by using Jon Stewart’s humorous coverage of Bush’s speech (Elliott 2006).
Central to the popularity of TDS and the Crossfire event is the widely-shared frustration and perception that the news media is failing democracy (what I won’t address given space, but which underlies this phenomenon, are such questions as what counts as ‘democracy’ and ‘truth’, for a start). Public outrage about U.S. news media is powerfully illustrated in the remarkably extensive on-line discussion of Jon Stewart’s ambush of Crossfire, and his decrying the partisan hackery and lack of civil discourse that pass for news. As a Newsweek columnist noted at the time, there are ‘no unscripted moments in American politics anymore, certainly not seven days before the presidential election’ (Zakaria 2004: 35).
The frustration expressed by Stewart clearly resonated with the sentiments of thousands of viewers who were keenly grateful that Jon Stewart had the status and authority to represent the ‘average citizen’ and broadcast their views. Stewart’s demand of Crossfire represents a longing articulated in many circles, though given the fragmentation of media it is in fact rare to have a text shared by 4 million.
An idealism about media and democracy (most explicitly articulated on Crossfire, as we will see below) is a running theme in the content and rhetorical address of TDS. Stewart himself refers to TDS as reflecting what he calls ‘a quaint idealism’. One commentator argues that after the 2000 election and World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, the news media coverage of these events ‘solidified Stewart’s court jester persona’ (Jones 2005: 109)Competition amongst news channels had changed what counted as news in the ten years leading up to 2001; secondly, after 9/11 these changes became more pronounced with patriotism packaging of channels like FOX. Cable news reporting so destroyed the sense of public trust and credibility that ‘The Daily Show took it as its patriotic duty, so to speak, to parody and ridicule these constructed falsities.’ (Jones 2005: 109). In Jon Stewart’s words:
I represent the distracted center….My comedy is not the comedy of the neurotic. It comes from the center. But it comes from feeling displaced from society because you’re in the center. We’re the group of fairness, common sense, and moderation…We’re clearly the disenfranchised center…because we’re not in charge. (Stewart quoted in Jones: 114-15)
Arguably, the appeal of The Daily Show and its political strategy is founded on a membership imagined as ‘the group of fairness, common sense, and moderation.’ As Jones writes in one of the few published books to address the political significance of The Daily Show and other recent political satire: ‘Jon Stewart’s approach is not a “rant”…[but] Instead he simply asserts a smirking disbelief’, often used to expose contradiction and the outright lies of politicians (Jones 2005: 110).
Moreover, Stewart’s voice carries legitimacy because he holds this position as commonsensical fellow citizen. ‘Stewart seems to be speaking for allot [sic] of people who would much rather see something substantial and informative on OUR airwaves. He went on that show as a fellow citizen and did us all a favor. Patriotism at its best.’ (Comment posted to Media Matters website, 16 October 2004)
Another post proclaims, ‘… Jon Stewart…is credible simply because he mirrors the critical observations of viewers’ (Comment posted to PressThink, 23 October 2004). The perception of Jon Stewart as a caring citizen allows him to occupy the status of hero for truth. ‘Stewart cares far more about what journalism is for than either Begala or Carlson, but for some reason they either didn't grasp this ahead of time [...] the very fact that they were clueless about Stewart's convictions about journalism also shows just how out of it they really are’ (Comment posted to Talk Left 15 October 2004).
These comments are echoed throughout the blogosphere discussion of his appearance on Crossfire, reiterating again and again the notion of Stewart ‘representing the feeling of most Americans’: ‘Stewart IS the face of most of America... confused about what the real issues are, in desparate need of honest discourse about the issues and the hope of honest compromise.’ (Comment posted to Dave Matthews Discussion Group, 16 October 2004).
I would argue that TDS functions as an ‘anti-gaslighting’ measure. Gaslighting is listed in the dictionary as a slang verb first used in 1956, defined as ‘to manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity; to subtly drive someone crazy.’ TDS counters the sense that one is being gaslighted by the Bush Administration and the media’s lapdog role: someone — in this case court jester Jon Stewart — is offering a reality-check in the otherwise apparently absurd theatre of media and politics. ‘There's a magic moment in that interview where Stewart pulls back the curtain surrounding the political machine and the manipulation of the media…’ (Comment posted to Dave Matthews Discussion Group, 16 October 2004).
Within online discussions, appreciation is often expressed to Stewart for making these key points about media responsibility. But some of the reasons for the emotional impact of Jon Stewart’s appearance have to do with sincere tone of his remarks. This points to a phenomenon I find curious: part of the power of the Crossfire event is the (illusion of) authenticity: the ‘real’ Jon Stewart has stood up. This is not the tongue-in-cheek, satirist Jon Stewart but Jon Stewart the sincere and caring citizen. ‘Stewart … went on that show as a fellow citizen and did us all a favor. Patriotism at its best.’ (Comment posted to Media Matters website, 16 October 2004).
A key appeal, then, is that Stewart ‘switched’ roles. Not only is Stewart given credit for using humor to speak truth to power on The Daily Show. In this instance, it is his refusal to be the ‘funny man’ that gives him credibility.‘It was an amazing segment. Carlson and Begala thought they had a funny man today and he gave them the truth.’ (Comment posted to Media Matters website, 15 October 2004).
As another blogger writes,
‘some might say, well, he was booked as a comedian so he should have been funny. And I would say, no. He was booked as a comedian, so he did precisely what any good [comedian]does: used comedy as a vehicle to speak truth. Watch the piece closely; he is clearly serious about his intent but starts out delivering it with a funny angle until Begala and Carlson start in on the “I thought you were supposed to be funny” harangue.’ (TC’s Ministry of Propaganda, 21 March 2005).
Another central focus of online discussion is the question of whether a comedian should or can be expected to play the role of a serious journalist. As I have tried to show in this essay, part of the reason for Stewart’s popularity is that people feel a fundamental lack of trust in mainstream news media, and Stewart’s comedy validates the reasons for this mistrust: ‘Jon Stewart, with his fake news show and honest look at government, is much closer to being a journalist than the whole sorry pack at CNN. And the talking heads at CNN and the rest of the television media, indolent, pampered, out of touch and VERY well cared for by their corporate masters, are much closer to being clowns’ (Zepp’s Political Commentaries, 23 October 2004).
The following comment illustrates not only my point about TDS being a touchstone of sanity, but the frequently-expressed gratitude that the comedic host as able to morph into a sincere and not parodic critic:
4. Truth to Power: The Function of Satire
‘I've heard people talk about "The Daily Show" as an oasis of sanity, a public service. I couldn't agree more. Stewart's appearance on "Crossfire" was another public service. He went on and acted as if the show's purpose really was to confront tough issues, instead of being the political equivalent of pro wrestling. Given a chance to say absolutely what he thought, Stewart took it. He accomplished what almost never happens on television anymore: He made the dots come alive.’ (post to ‘The War Room’ on Salon by Tim Grieve 15 October 2004).
A great deal of TDS viewer’s pleasure comes from having a public figure speak ‘truth to power’. Commenting on the pleasure derived from TDS, this posting observes:
As a kid, I read the usual Shakespeare, and almost the only thing I remember is the idea of the "wise fool" usually in the form of a court jester. The deal is that such a guy can say what he wants, because he's not intended to be taken seriously. The fool can speak truth to power. I guess that's what Stewart's doing on the show, and it sure works for me. (Craigblog, 13 September 2003)
The wise fool, or court jester, is commonly the figure who speaks truth to power in the tradition of political satire. In times marked by the stifling of dissent and narrowing of press freedom and bandwidth, political satire thrives. Political satire’s roots are traditionally traced to Juvenal and Horace, two Roman writers, who used sharp wit to expose the evils and weaknesses of those in power. The tradition of satire is also marked by such names as Twain, Swift, Cervantes. Satire makes its point by use of parody, irony, travesty, and grotesquery, and is characterised ‘primarily by reduction and exaggeration’ and the ‘use of wit’ (Fletcher 1987: 3). A significant question often posed by satirists, is whether there is a protagonist, and if so of what tone and methods does the protagonist adopt to levy their critique of those in power? Traditionally, protagonists have often been divided into different roles, such as court jester, clown and buffoon.As one blogger describes the role of the court jester and satire:
‘Comedy makes fun of the particulars of a situation; Satire makes fun of the opinions of a situation. By definition, neither takes opinionated peoples' opinions seriously. That's a key function of comedy and has been since the days of the court jester-- really, in fact, the entire point of a court jester.’(TC’s Ministry of Propaganda, 21 March 2005).
In the case of The Daily Show, ‘Stewart gets to play the fool by using the words of those in power against them, revealing “truth” by a simple reformulation of their statements….’ (Jones 2005: 113).
Much could be said about the history of political satire, although a full discussion of affect and parody are beyond the scope of this essay (such a discussion may be best excavated beginning with a history of political satire moving up to current ‘fair use legislation’ which legally protects those who perform parody, one subset of satire). ‘Humor…helps one only to bear somewhat better the unalterable; sometimes it reminds both the mighty and the weak that they are not to be taken seriously. … the joke belongs to the rich treasury of the instruments of politics’ (Speier and Jackall 1998: 1352).
However, in line with my argument that there is a new expression of demands for truthfulness, Jon Stewart is not simply the classic court jester. A recurring theme in the online discussions is that, in the current climate, truth can only be achieved through this kind of humor: ‘Jon Stewart and the excellent writers of The Daily Show have also given anyone paying attention an essential piece of strategy: sometimes the truth can ONLY be delivered through comedy. While “real” news shows refuse to check political claims against reality, it has taken a “fake” news show to do actual research necessary to prove many of the lies politicians tell.’ (post to Global Dialog Project, no date).
In particular, TDS appeals in large part because it is seen as more real or more ‘truthful’ than the mainstream news.
‘The Crossfire appearance goes straight to the reason of why Stewart and the Daily Show are so popular. With the corporate journalism organized around flattering the politicians, instead of challenging them — no matter how outrageous the lies or how bloated the rhetoric — Stewart’s “fake news” ends up being more truthful about the reality of U.S. politics than all the Crossfires and Hardballs piled up in a great steaming heap.’ (post to Counterpunch, 28 October 2004).
In online discussion, there is frequent commentary on how Stewart’s ‘fake news’ is more effective than so-called ‘real’ news: ‘The comedian parades around as a fake journalist. But his fake journalism is far superior to anything else out there. Stewart doesn't make up fake news. The satire is in the jokes and the way Stewart adds humorous commentary to real news. The news is real. The reporting is fake.’ (post to The DailyToreador, 4 November 2004).
The function of political satire as saying what is otherwise unsaid within a given political climate combines as well with people’s individual sense of being unheard. TDS fulfills both functions — saying the unsaid, and saying it for the unheard populace: ‘Thank you, Jon Stewart, for saying what I would have liked to say to infotainment hosts more interested in pleasing their bosses and their political patrons than providing information to the viewer.’ (post to Snarkcake, 19 October 2004).
Hence we come to the Crossfire moment as the watershed: the most trusted name in fake news speaks for the masses.
5. Conclusion: New Appeals to Truth
‘The moments in which something real and genuine occurs on Crossfire are few and far between. It was an absolute joy to witness nearly 30. Stewart delivered a message long overdue. Do they not realize that he was speaking for the masses?’ (Comment posted to Media Matters website, 16 October 2004).
The popular appeal of the Crossfire moment lies in the perception of his Stewart’s courage to speak the ‘truth’, to confront politician’s lies and mainstream media spin with an antidote of ‘honesty’. The viral popularity of Stewart’s skewering of Crossfire offers a window into the phenomenon I am investigating that underlies this essay: the sincere demand for truthfulness and accountability which occurs against a culturally-understood backdrop of ‘all-the-world’s-an-image’, absurdist and postmodern theater. Across the four sites I am studying in my three-year project, I am investigating how four digital political spaces are being used to create counter publics, how these expressions of digital dissent are related to frustration with mainstream media, and how discourses of truth are employed in relation to analyses of the role of media in democracy.
In relation to this inquiry about demand for truth, it is clear that audiences perceived Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire as revealing not only the truth about the problems with this talk show, but about the failings of the mainstream media more generally. One sees this appreciation of ‘honesty’ in these three comments from different threads:
‘Why was this interview so shocking? Honesty.’ (Comment from Dave Matthews Discussion Group, 16 October 2004).
‘He went on to accuse them of being theatre, not debate, of being dishonest and partisan hacks. It was honest, it was funny, it was brutally frank, and it was accurate.’ (Tony Iovino, A Red Mind in a Blue State, blog, 20 October 2004).
‘I just watched the video and have an even greater respect for Stewart. What he did took a lot of courage, but it really needed to be said. He made the most honest and relevant remarks I've heard on cable news for months.’ (Comment posted to Media Matters website 15 October 2004).
In summary, the Crossfire phenomenon deserves the attention of those interested in the mutations of contemporary news media firstly because it is an unusually populist political event — both because of the comedic status of Jon Stewart, and the consequent response from a range of viewers ranging from sports fans to others who do not fit the profile of radical media critics. Bloggers and those who were posting recognised it as a watershed moment as it was happening: ‘My prediction: This will be a liminal (threshold) moment that will not fully be appreciated by the political hacks until it's too late’ (comment posted to Talk Left 16 October 2004). And six months after the event, it was being referred to as ‘the now legendary appearance of Jon Stewart on Crossfire’. (TC’s Ministry of Propaganda, 21 March 2005). It continues to receive regular reference in news media stories and blogs as a milestone moment in media criticism history.
Second, the Crossfire episode merits attention as a manifestationof media convergence, in which the internet functions as a tool for amplification, alternative ‘broadcast’, and public engagement in discussion that is not possible through traditional, one-directional journalism or media formats. The new media I analyse in this essay reflect media convergence: a cable show watched as much online as through broadcast, and one which generates extensive online discussion that evidences the degree to which news readers are not only turning to online formats for news consumption, but are creating online public spaces and networks for discussion of political concerns. Digital media’s challenge to mainstream media is illustrated not only in the numbers who were able to view the Crossfire episode online and discuss it in the blogosphere, but in the rise of independently produced multimedia ‘memes’, political movies and animations circulated on the internet.
The tradition of popular TV icons speaking ‘truth to power’ will only increase given the context of media convergence. A more recent watershed moment was the invitation of satirist Stephen Colbert by the Associated Press as keynote at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in April 2006. (Colbert was originally a frequent ‘correspondent’ on TDS, and this season launched his own highly-popular news satire show The Colbert Report which airs each night following TDS). Colbert — unlike Stewart — has created an on-screen character of a smug Republican. The Press Correspondent’s dinner was a veritable who’s who of Hollywood stars and members of the judicial and legislative government in attendance in the audience, with U.S. President George W. Bush seated three chairs away from Colbert. Colbert proceeds to deliver a twenty-minute roast of the President, only slightly veiled by the cover of a character who ‘supports’ Republican politics and the President. The satirical performance is utterly scathing, and in no way holds back in its barbed critique of the George W. and his policies. Occasionally the cameras show members of the audience, and the President, looking seriously shocked by the utter brazenness of the public, in-your-face critique of everything to do with Bush and company.
This latest populist moment of public dissent also represents the phenomenon of media convergence which is central to my discussion of the Crossfire episode.
…by the time you read this, some other compelling moment in broadcast history will have been plucked from the airwaves and frog-marched around the Internet also. It's funny: Television used to be such a fleeting medium. For the millions of people who watched its signals, it had no permanence. Broadcasts would fly out the window and off into space, lost to anyone who didn't catch them on VCR. But now moving pictures are getting caught by the Internet; it's like fly paper, ensnaring and consuming them before they can escape. (Tossell 2006).
The Daily Show and Stewart’s moments on Crossfire will represent for years to come the populist demand for truthful accountability from news media. In the context of convergence, at least until the Internet is further privatised or more fully censored by Western governments, new media provides a perfect forum through which to broadcast the growing clamor for journalistic responsibility.
Boler, Megan (2006a) ‘The Transmission of Political Critique after 9/11: “A New Form of Desperation”?’ M/C Journal vol. 9 no. 1, <http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0603/11-boler.php>, accessed 26 May 2006.
—— (forthcoming 2006b) ‘Mediated Publics and the Crises of Democracy’ in Justen Infinito and Cris Mayo (eds) Philosophical Studies in Education, vol. 37.
Elliott, Geoff (2006) ‘Borderline support strategy Cheap labour v job protection?’ The Australian, 20 May, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19190332-28737,00.html.
Fletcher, M.D. (1987) Contemporary Political Satire, New York: University Press of America.
Friend, Tad (2002) ‘Is it funny yet? Jon Stewart and the comedy of crisis,’ The New Yorker, 11 February, p. 28.
Jones, Jeffrey (2005) Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
Speier, Hans, and Jackall, Robert (1998) ‘Wit and Politics: An Essay on Laughter and Power,’ The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 103 no. 5, p. 1352-1401.
Tossell, Ivor (2006) ‘Moments on demand, there for the clicking’, Globe and Mail, 19 May.
Warner, Michael (2002) “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture, vol. 14 no. 1, pp. 49-90.
Zakaria, Fareed (2004) “TV, Money and ‘Crossfire’ Politics,” Newsweek, 11 January, p. 35.