For the libertarian, or even, more generally, the political skeptic — or, for that matter, the political literate — the television news media have little to offer. The mainstream news stations are distinctly establishment, quite left-liberal, and insufficiently critical of the status quo, even when their general inclinations on an issue happen to be decent. The supposedly iconoclastic alternative, Fox News, is even worse, most of the time, and especially in its glorifications of the Republican warfare state.
What is a freedom lover, or any literate skeptic of the political establishment, to do? The Internet clearly provides the best, most diverse, most reliable selections of news sources. The very format of television makes it difficult if not impossible to match the quality and variety found online. However, sometimes watching television allows a certain relaxation and a breath of fresh air — a welcome contrast to the reading, the stiff sitting in an office chair. Sometimes it’s most desirable to get one’s dose of frustration and despair from the news while enjoying the comfort of a couch, rather than to satisfy one’s regimen of frustration and despair while suffering the awkward stiffness and tired eyes that usually accompany the perpetual perusing of headlines on the World Wide Web.
So television news I have scoured for libertarian and non-establishment content. Of course, there is the heroic rogue John Stossel, rightly regarded as a media maverick and proponent of freedom in an otherwise statist, conformist mass media. The only problem is that he only gets very little time in his "Give Me a Break" segment on 20/20, and the fabulous hour-long John Stossel specials are unfortunately quite few and far between. But every chance he gets, Stossel shatters anti-market myths and uncovers government lies with a vengeance, boldly exposing politicians for the scam artists they usually are. I particularly recommend his hour-long special, "John Stossel Goes to Washington," which tackles the failures of a fair sampling of government programs. All throughout watching the show, you’ll wonder how this stuff got past the censors. Stossel’s book, Give Me A Break, unlike most books written by TV journalists these days, also delivers a strong dose of libertarian skepticism and disenchantment with the establishment media and political status quo.
Tragically, there is little die-hard libertarian television news reporting to find on a more regular basis. There are moments of truth and clarity on many of the stations, but not much in the way of consistent honesty and critical journalism. However, I do submit that the overall best television news show is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It justifiably won an award for best TV news reporting last year, and Bill O’Reilly has had conniption fits over the show’s influence, since the satiric Daily Show is, for crying out loud, a joke. Well, so is Fox News, for the most part. But on top of being more humorous — perhaps because Stewart is intentionally, not just incidentally, funny — the Daily Show also succeeds in being more reliable in reporting the news. And I think, like the show’s humor, the producers intend the reliability as well.
Unsurprisingly, and despite O’Reilly’s nutty claim that all of Stewart’s viewers are "stoned slackers" (and that he had "research" showing that "[e]ighty-seven percent [of viewers] are intoxicated when they watch" The Daily Show), a study has revealed that "Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers — even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration."
I say, "unsurprisingly," because The Daily Show has been the only show I know of that has consistently reported the most outrageous twists and turns, abuses and usurpations, lies and painful facts, and crimes and misdemeanors that have abounded from and within the Bush administration’s most egregious policies, especially its Iraq war and civil liberties violations. The show asks tough questions, presents clips of politicians saying myriad absurd and horrifying things, and takes a rather critical approach at evaluating the actions, quotes and prevarications of America’s rulers.
The show leans left, a bit. But it seems to be increasingly rare for the show to devote much time to criticizing Bush’s tax cuts or opining about allegedly needed and under-funded government programs. Most of the show’s coverage of the government and politics involves issues that do and should interest most politically concerned Americans, including libertarians, and the show’s commentary is usually worth considering.
The show leans Democratic, a bit, but the Republicans are in power, and so Stewart et al.’s critical focus on Republicans is not mere blind partisanship, by any means. In fact, the show does bash the Democrats for not sticking up for the principles they supposedly represent, or even for common sense and decency. A little more than five years ago, by the way, at least one commentator on the show was quite harsh on Clinton during the impeachment proceedings, managing more antipathy for Clinton than most Americans, let alone most liberals, were able to muster at the time. More recently, Stewart even refused to ask only softball questions when he had progressive-favorite Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich sitting next to him on the soundstage.
Most of the show’s coverage is relevant in what its reporters choose to cover, at least when the show is claiming to be reporting the news. At least 90% of the time, The Daily Show is on the side of the people, and against the state.
This, of course, is what the press is supposed to be at its best. Contrary to the claims from the right, it’s not supposed to be considered "un-American," for example, for a newspaper or news show to question or oppose a war, much less to report the costs of the war, the lack of benefits, and the dishonesty and depravity of the politicians who waged it. Such reporting, the act and the spirit surrounding it, is a zenith of patriotism, and a shining light of sanity in today’s darkness of bloody lies. How bizarre a world we now have, when the most reliable and thoughtful TV news show is on Comedy Central.
The show has a new book out, a sort-of textbook parody, called, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. It’s funny, and I recommend it for serious fans of the show, but it fails by quite a margin to capture the importance, quality, or indeed the hilarity of the show itself.
Jon Stewart has recently boasted, not very subtly or infrequently, of his appearance on Crossfire, in which he disappointed the hosts, but not the audience, by refraining from humor and instead taking advantage of the opportunity to rail against the news media, its fabricated controversies and manufactured debates, and especially shows like Crossfire, for compromising the integrity of modern political discourse. "[I]t’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America," Stewart said of the show that had him on as a guest. When he was accused of being biased toward Kerry, which he has never denied, he pointed out the irony that "the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity."
Jon Stewart is a liberal Democrat, but unlike the rest of the news media that also lean that way, he avoids being an establishment shill, willingly exposes government abuses on both sides of the aisle, and speaks out against the crippling deficiency in true, honest debate in our country. Stewart said on Crossfire, in a statement that likely sums up his attitudes about much of the political dialogue in America, and certainly sums up the attitude of many a disgruntled libertarian and political skeptic: "I would love to see a debate show…. To do a debate would be great." But calling Crossfire a debate show is "like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition."
CNN is now planning to cancel Crossfire, and the new president of the network, Jonathan Klein, has said he plans to emphasize reporting the news, rather than news "debate" shows. Taking a swing at his competition, Klein said, "We report the news. Fox talks about the news. They’re very good at what they do and we’re very good at what we do.” He also approved of what The Daily Show’s host said on Crossfire: "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.” If CNN modifies itself further along the lines of Stewart’s suggestions and critiques, we might see significant improvements in the network.
The Daily Show is not pure libertarian programming, in any sense. But unlike most of the media, the show is honest about its bias, careful and insightful in its reporting, critical of the ruling regime, and succeeds in not simply being a partisan project or arm of the political establishment. If only the rest of the news could be half as serious as this comedy show, such improved journalism along with a greater number of exposés of the type we get from John Stossel would undoubtedly help foster a more critically aware populace, far better in tune with the disastrous policies and deceptions of the government, and thus a better fighting chance at reversing today’s political trends and restoring peace and liberty to America.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.