Stateside satirists who can turn the air blue

At long last, the right-wing media in the US faces competition from a new breed of seriously funny liberal commentators.
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The Independent Online

Shortly before inauguration day in January 2001, satirical newspaper The Onion published a fictional report of a speech by the incoming US President. George W Bush, wrote the paper's staff, had assured his audience that their "long national nightmare of peace and prosperity [was] finally over."

Among Dubya's plans for undoing the deeds of the previous eight years were "an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the US will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years," and a promise to "bring back economic stagnation by implementing substantial tax cuts, which would lead to a recession." The fake report wasn't just funny, it was remarkably prescient.

The years since Bush's election have given the American Left few reasons to be cheerful, but they can at least thank this unpopular administration for inspiring some good jokes. After decades of dour political correctness, liberals in the US today rally around political torch-bearers who are both incisive and entertaining.

Jon Stewart, iconoclastic anchor of the satirical Daily Show, is the pre-eminent example, alongside his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, and Al Franken, a former Saturday Night Live comedian and talk radio host for the liberal network Air America, who's now running for the Senate as a Democrat. The New York Times recently ran a feature asking whether Stewart might be "the most trusted man in America".

Stewart, Colbert, Franken and the writers of The Onion are members of the coalition of satirists and polemicists that is the subject of a new book by Theodore Hamm, founder of alternative US journal The Brooklyn Rail. In The New Blue Media (so named for the colours of the US Democratic Party), Hamm argues that these figures have energised a new generation of voters, and even changed the way the Democrats do business.

"The Bush administration has provoked outrage, as has the mainstream media's willingness to push the Bush agenda – at least on the issue of Iraq," Hamm explains. "Combine that with the public taking the media into their own hands, via blogs, and people get their voices heard in a way that they couldn't previously. The New Blue Media have made Democratic politicians more responsive to the base of their party, and made politics hip and fun for a younger generation."

Before 2000, the Right had a near-monopoly on the skilful use of alternative media, with direct mail and talk radio becoming hugely successful methods of disseminating their message, complemented by the fulminations of Fox News and its conservative hosts. But today's new technology has proved to be a powerful tool of the Left.

Hillary Clinton blamed her defeat by Barack Obama in this year's Democratic primaries on the fundraising power of MoveOn.org, the activist website that came out for Obama. "MoveOn and the activists have the power to raise enormous sums of money, and to churn out volunteers," explains Hamm. "The question is whether they're willing to use it. At the moment they seem content to be a fundraising and organising arm of the Obama campaign, without pushing him in any policy direction."

Michael Moore, the firebrand documentary maker, mounted a spirited, if ultimately unsuccessful, populist campaign to topple Bush at the 2004 election with his filmed polemic Fahrenheit 9/11. Meanwhile, left-thinking people now find the web full of friendly voices, an army of liberal bloggers led by Markos Moulitsas, founder of The Daily Kos. And, if they fancy a laugh after Kos's bleak outlook, they can always click back to the online edition of The Onion.

The Onion's staff claim their paper is neither anti-Left nor anti-Right, just "anti-dumb", but this, argues Hamm, is mere semantics. "For [any of The New Blue Media] to call themselves independent is probably just sly marketing," he says. "No one could have watched The Daily Show's convention coverage and had any doubt about where their sympathies lie. They've been very good at exposing the hypocrisy of the Republicans."

But are these outlets, like their rivals on the Right, simply preaching to the converted, or will they persuade conservatives to change their minds – and their votes? "Conservatives aren't going to listen to MoveOn or Kos," admits Hamm, "and they'll fly into a rage about anything Michael Moore or Air America have to say, but Colbert and Stewart have crossover appeal because of their intelligence. It's amusing to the intelligentsia that exists on the Right as well as the Left. And Stewart goes out of his way to have right-wing guests on The Daily Show – John McCain has been on at least 10 times." Last week, Tony Blair accepted an invitation to Stewart's show, his most high-profile television appearance since he stepped down as Prime Minister.

While McCain's campaign has provided plenty of comic grist to the New Blue Media mill, Stewart's recent attempts to balance his broadcasts with the odd joke at Obama's expense haven't exactly raised the roof of The Daily Show studio. In fact, liberal audiences seem terrified to laugh at their new champion. "The satirists haven't offered any real critique of Obama," Hamm agrees. "In 2004, they were pushing Kerry to take a clear position on Iraq. They could be pushing Obama to take a clear stand on the economy, for instance, and asking him what he plans to do."

Currently, the sole aim of the alternative media is to see Obama installed in the White House. But if his cheerleaders are unwilling to question him now, then what will they do if he wins? "If Obama wins, MoveOn will have to figure out whether they want to be a pressure group pushing him in certain directions, or if they just want to keep rallying the base of the party on his behalf. If they just get swallowed up by the party establishment, then they haven't really accomplished much," says Hamm. "The question on a deeper level is whether they really want to challenge the power of corporations and their influence over politics.

"I hope [The New Blue Media] find ways to hold Obama accountable if he does win. If all of his talk of change and hope and a new way of doing things in Washington turns out to be just rhetoric, they'll have plenty of footage of him saying things on the campaign trail that he hasn't said or done in office – and they'll be doing a service by reminding him of it. But if McCain wins, it gives this new constellation of media four more years to do what it can to undermine him." At least that would be one thing to look forward to.

The New Blue Media by Theodore Hamm is published by The New Press on 25 September, at £14.99

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