The past few years have borne witness to the increasing relevance of programs like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live in not only shaping political coverage but influencing how people, especially young people, view politics. At the beginning of 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a poll finding that “For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the increasing popularity of these shows: no society is healthy without satire. But there’s a difference between turning to satire for entertainment and depending on it for news. The fact that so many people my age are starting to see comedy shows as the most objective news source available is not so much an indictment of the media but an indication of intellectual laziness and groupthink.
Take, for instance, Stewart’s interview last week with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair interview (hat tip: John McCormack). Stewart tries to mock both Blair and President Bush’s belief that if more countries become democratic, there is less chance they will war with each other. This is called Democratic Peace Theory, it’s been in existence for decades, and is hardly an idea popularized only by rapacious neocons, George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It also, unfortunately for Stewart, has the benefit of being largely true.
In the interview, Stewart thinks he’s laid a clever trap for Blair when he brings up the Falklands War, in which Britain fought with Argentina in 1982 over the latter country’s invasion of the Falklands Islands, territories belonging to the British, as an example proving the failure of Blair’s statement that democracies don’t go to war with one another. After a bit of confused crosstalk about which war was in question, Stewart makes clear that he’s talking about the Falklands. Blair corrects, “Actually at the time Argentina was not a democracy.” (It was ruled by a military junta.) To this, Stewart mutters, “Oh, okay, dammit!” as if he knew this all along and is in on the joke.
Laughs all around. But moments like this expose the paucity of Stewart’s (or his writers’) basic knowledge about international affairs. It’s not the only false assertion he makes during the interview. In an attempt to paint Blair and those who view the world as he does as overly simplistic in their understanding of Islamist terror, Stewart says that Hamas and Hezbollah aren’t like Al Qaeda, and could not share that group’s goals, because the two Palestinian terrorist organizations are “localized,” whereas Al Qaeda has broader ambitions.
I’m unclear what exactly Stewart means by this. If he intends to say that Hamas and Hezbollah are focused only on their conflict with Israel, he’d be wrong: Hezbollah has attacked and intimidated all of its political opponents in Lebanon, including the (American-allied) Siniora government. Hezbollah, of course, is funded and supplied by Iran and Syria, and has also been intimately involved in training Iranian proxies who have been killing American (and British) soldiers in Iraq, not to mention more than a few Iraqi civilians. Hezbollah was also responsible for the 1983 attack on Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen, the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, the kidnapping, torture and murder of William Francis Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, and the killing of 19 Americans in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
Then there are the specifically Palestinian groups. Hamas seeks the violent imposition of a region-wide Islamic caliphate, and views its war with Israel as a first step; if Stewart meant to say that Hamas doesn’t have any material ties with Al Qaeda, he’d be wrong on that front, as well. Remember the Karine A, which Israel intercepted in 2002 en route to Yasser Arafat laden with 50 tons of weapons? The provider of that ship’s cargo was Iran. The “Sunnis don’t cooperate with Shi’ites” narrative, along with the belief that terror groups with divergent long-term ambitions would never cooperate on short-term projects, never seems to die, no matter how many times it is shown to be a fiction.
Perhaps media critics should start to worry as much about Jon Stewart as they do about the Times.