Sometime during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq I remember watching a comedy bit on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that drove home what a big joke the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq were. The segment featured the UN inspectors, who were at the time charged with unearthing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, as a bunch of Keystone Kops running around Iraq tripping over their own equipment and being led around by their noses by the Iraqis who were obviously hiding banned munitions. The thrust of the satirical news story was to give viewers a laugh while they nodded in agreement that anyone who trusted these UN clowns to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq must be a fool.
Slamming the UN weapons inspectors as ineffectual twits dominated right-wing talk radio at the time and The Daily Show was in effect regurgitating the talking points of those who wanted to bring the country to war. Dissing the UN's efforts on Comedy Central inadvertently helped make the case for war. It is kind of like when Dick Cheney pointed to the New York Times to buttress his warmongering saying: "Hey, even the liberals agree with us!" When Jon Stewart seeks "balance" for his targets of satire he can end up reinforcing the false impressions that the Bush Republicans want people to have. It's unfortunate because political humor is a powerful force that can sway some of those "low information" voters the pundits have been flogging lately.
So too was the case last night when Jon Stewart ran a bit about Barack Obama's decision to eschew public financing. The Daily Show seized the issue as an opportunity to display "balance" and to poke fun at the Obama campaign. But not only did the bit fall flat it played right into the Republican line, which is full of half-truths and outright lies about Obama's decision. Just watch the right-wing radio shock jocks and the literati warmongers like David Brooks and William Kristol -- who are always looking for a cute "hook" to slime Obama -- cite The Daily Show as confirming, from a hip "liberal" source, their worst fears about Obama. They'll say: "See, we told you so, even the liberals are beginning to see what we've known all along, Obama is just the same old politics, etc."
Let's set the record straight. First, Obama did not "vow" to take public financing no matter what ensued in the campaign. There were all sorts of conditions and unpredictable variables that he said would affect his decision about public financing when (and if) the time came. He wisely gave himself wiggle room on the issue. That's what politicians do. He didn't paint himself into a corner because at the time he didn't know if he'd be able to unseat Hillary Clinton or who his likely Republican opponent would be.
Second, absent from the discussion about Obama's "betrayal" of his principles because he's not foolish enough to tie his hands in the general election is the fact that he has broken all records in American politics for the amount of money raised BY SMALL DONATIONS. The vast majority of his campaign cash, about 93 percent, has come from donations of $200 or less. George W. Bush could never do this; and John McCain could never do it either. So we should punish the one candidate whose campaign is the least beholden to giant corporations and wealthy individuals? Obama has accomplished exactly what he said he did in his recent statement on the issue: a new form of public financing.
Jon Stewart and The Daily Show should be mindful whenever Obama is the target of their satire that they don't end up regurgitating Republican talking points. The Daily Show is far more influential than it was four years ago when Bush still had millions of people duped. The producers should be careful when poking fun at Obama not to provide fuel for the right-wing slime machine. Poke fun at Obama all you want, but do it in a way that also reveals the Republicans' mendacity and hypocrisy.
John McCain has flip-flopped on public financing so many times it's impossible to keep up. Arianna Huffington details these flip-flops in her most recent post.
In 2000 and 2004, the corporate media held the Democratic Party nominee to a much higher standard than the Republican. George W. Bush didn't give the idea of public financing a thought. It wasn't even an issue. In fact, mainstream political commentators praised Bush for not seeking public money. Bush had amassed a record-breaking war chest from corporations like Enron and from wealthy shitheads like T. Boone Pickens. The running joke in 2000 was that Bush had so much corporate cash he was a corporation pretending to be a person. As governor of Texas he also executed 152 people (a record) and at least six or more of them were almost certainly innocent. The press was uninterested and I didn't see any satirical bits about it. Meanwhile, the media hated Al Gore's sighing during the debates, and accepted all the Republican lies about Gore thinking he "invented" the Internet, was the subject of the movie Love Story, etc.
In 2004, we had the spectacle of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" (many of whom are now working for the John McCain campaign) making the rounds on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, NPR, and PBS peddling their lies about John Kerry's Vietnam war record. Yes, even the venerable "serious" news hosts Jim Lehrer and Tim Russert gave the Swift Boaters airtime to libel Kerry. What the Swift Boaters and their media enablers did was worse than anything Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon ever cooked up. They pissed all over a man's war record. And even if you believe the Vietnam War was wrong (as I do), trashing a veteran's Purple Hearts is really beyond the pale. Kerry risked his life for his country in Vietnam; the U.S. Navy gave him medals for his efforts; end of story.
I point to this shameful Swift Boat episode from our last presidential election to illustrate the level of toxicity in our media environment. In such a contaminated and sulfurous political context anyone who wishes to rid the nation of the dead hand of Republican misrule must be careful not to play into the narratives the Right is expert in constructing every four years. That cautionary note applies especially to television shows that can influence the political climate ever so slightly in this pivotal election year.
Yeah, that means you Jon Stewart.