Counterfeit Bill

from Eye Magazine

“One of your mother’s more endearing traits,” explains the avuncular liberal senator to his prospective son-in-law, “is a tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her about anything as a Communist.” The dialogue is from the 1962 Cold War classicThe Manchurian Candidate, and the lady in question is Mrs. Iselin, the distaff McCarthyist and would-be presidential usurper played with unforgettable venom by Angela Lansbury.

The description might be applied with equal fidelity to a more contemporary right-wing villain: the conservative Fox News channel commentator and bestselling author Bill O’Reilly. Guests on his top-rated cable program, The O’Reilly Factor (unavailable in Canada without a satellite dish), are branded as “leftists” — or, even more damning, “liberals” — the moment they disagree with the outspoken host. He’ll also shout over them or even cut their mic the moment he starts losing an argument — which is often.

Earlier this year, O’Reilly warned the son of a 9/11 victim to “get out of my studio before I tear you to fucking pieces,” when he became perturbed that his guest would have the temerity to speak against the war in Iraq. In April, 2004, The Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick went on The O’Reilly Factor to discuss the presence of American military deserters in Canada, and the host was so outraged at her “socialist” credentials that he cited “secular” newspapers like the Globe as grounds for his proposed (and vaguely South Park-ish) “boycott” of Canada.

The difference between O’Reilly and The Manchurian Candidate’s Mrs. Iselin — besides the fact that she’s fictional — is that, if pressed about her affiliations, Mrs. Iselin would likely concede her Republican credentials. O’Reilly, by contrast, purports vociferously to be, in his words, “an independent,” advertising his program as a “no spin zone” where issues are addressed from a non-partisan point of view.

He’s not fooling anyone, except possibly the millions of like-minded American viewers who have made the show a hit and its star a very wealthy and influential man. O’Reilly’s rabid attack-dog style makes him virtually critic-proof: when he’s taken to task for his faulty journalism or one-sided rhetoric, he responds in kind, painting his critics as members of a dishonest intellectual elite.

What’s scary about The O’Reilly Factor is that in spite of its consistent manipulations of the truth, it’s considered to be a genuine news program. Those unfazed by its brainwashing tactics argue that the show performs a vital function: it’s an unintentionally hilarious self-critique of the bloody partisan divide fissuring the American political scene. The Globe TV columnist John Doyle even suggested that the show be broadcast in Canada as an alternative to the Comedy Network.

One program that does air in Canada on the Comedy Network (and CTV) is The Daily Show, the once obscure, now ubiquitous current-events satire program hosted by Jon Stewart. Its hilarity is entirely intentional — and it has multiple Emmys to show for it — but it is also the very thing O’Reilly’s program claims to be (but is not): an “independent” and even informative source of political commentary.

True, calling The Daily Show hard news is a bit of a stretch. It’s really a talk show, although it shoves its interview segments towards the end, acknowledging implicitly their relative unimportance.

The Daily Show’s 60 Minutes-inspired news items, which usually involve sending a crack team of correspondents to remote locations to cover ludicrous human-interest stories such as a citizen’s misplaced winter coat or lap dance-parlour legislation, are also mostly beside the point. The meat of The Daily Show is Stewart’s opening remarks, which reveal a trenchant sensibility through a format similar to “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live.

Like fellow late-night wiseacre David Letterman (who has managed the tricky feat of appearing apolitical for 20 years in the public spotlight), Stewart is often predisposed towards mocking Bush. But he stops short of being an ideologue; as anyone who has read his 1999 essay collection, Naked Pictures of Famous People, knows, Stewart’s lucidly funny contempt doesn’t run along party lines. (The highlight of the book was a memoir about the young JFK that dealt with the president’s racism, misogyny and general spoiled-brattiness.)

This equal-opportunity approach to satire manifests itself consistently on The Daily Show. Reporting on an MTV appearance by John Kerry, Stewart took a clip of the Democratic hopeful discussing “coolness,” as Kerry informed the host “If I was cool, I wouldn’t say… I was… cool” — and teased it out into a stinging jab at the candidate’s total and potentially crippling lack of charisma. This was contrasted with a segment in which a Republican spin manager appeared on MTV and projected a comparatively loose, accessible vibe. Later on that same show, Stewart interviewed Karen Hughes, author of a pro-Bush tome Ten Minutes From Normaland managed to ask direct, non-leading questions even as she attempted to turn the chat into an anti-Kerry stump speech.

Like O’Reilly, Stewart isn’t above using shock tactics. But the difference is that O’Reilly is at his most surprising when he comes unhinged, while Stewart calculates cleverly for maximum impact. Discussing the uproar over gay marriages with guest Melissa Etheridge, Stewart feigned belligerence, complaining that he didn’t think it was right. When a surprised-seeming Etheridge pressed him on his stance, Stewart dropped the punchline: he loved his wife, he explained, and didn’t see why he had to leave her to marry a man. The lesbian rock star laughed and informed him that homosexual unions weren’t mandatory. “Oh,” he said, stone-faced.

With Michael Moore’s newly minted Cannes championFahrenheit 911 set to join John Sayles’ anti-Bush project Silver City and a Gulf-war themed (not to mention wholly superfluous) Manchurian Candidate remake in theatres later this fall, the time to consider pop culture politics seems nigh. As Canadians, we’re fortunate on some level to be spared access to the “no spin zone” of O’Reilly’s hate-mongering charlatanism. At the same time, we’re spoiled to believe that even most hard American news programs operate with the wit and elegant proportion of The Daily Show.

Stewart’s program is ostensibly the fake: it bills itself as comedy and deals in punchlines. But for all its silly ebullience, its consistent acknowledgement of the dirty pool that has come to mark public American political discourse makes its all-spin zone the safest place to be.

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