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ANALYSIS

Fighting Words 

On TV comedy shows, in song and in comic strips, the left is turning to stronger language and sharper satire in its effort to unseat President George W. Bush.

In a now-famous 1988 Saturday Night Live episode, Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis debated Dana Carvey's George Bush. Carvey's Bush, a mass of verbal and physical tics, prompted Lovitz' Dukakis to look into the camera and say, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." The joke is now painfully resonant for those on the political left. Recently, Mad TV reprised the punch line, substituting Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush for Dukakis and Bush's father.

For liberals, the current state of the election -- Kerry's lack of a commanding lead given such issues as Iraq and the economy -- means it's time to get back in the fight. More than in recent years, the left is turning to stronger language, sharper satire and more pointed rhetoric. Take The Revolution Starts Now, the new album by singer/songwriter Steve Earle, which includes reasoned protest songs like "Rich Man's War" and "Home to Houston." These songs are typical of Earle's past work. But the album also has "F the CC," a Ramones-like blast with the chorus, "F--k the FCC / F--k the FBI / F--k the CIA / Livin' in the motherf--kin' USA."

"I'm trying to reach out to people that don't agree with me," Earle told David Bauder of the Associated Press. "I'm also trying to make people that do agree with me, that have been silent and intimidated into being quiet, speak up."

Mike D. of the Portland, Ore.-based band I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In the House is even more blunt. The one-time army boxer once served in the 101st Airborne/Air Assault division, and the band's second album, Menace, is working-class rock 'n' roll with punk's ragged quality. His songs have a fistfight-for-what-you-believe-in sensibility, especially "Westboro Baptist Church," which includes the line, "F--k Fred Phelps," the pastor at the Ottawa, Ontario, church who's behind the anti-gay Web site godhatesfags.com. The song goes on to say of Bush, "Everything that comes out of his mouth is a f--king lie / He prays to a god that hates his guts, then sends young boys to die / C'mon y'all let's f--k the President!"

"I'm not a very articulate man," Mike D. says. "I'm not schooled. I like to think I'm the big middle finger on the left."

It's tempting to dismiss such a protest as broad and needlessly crude, but Mike D.'s words are being echoed in conversations in countless barrooms and living rooms.

"That's how I'd talk about it with my friends on the phone," says David Rees, creator of the comic strip Get Your War On. "The very first strip that I made, which says something like, 'Operation Enduring the Freedom to Bomb the F--k Out of You' -- that's just a conversation a friend and I had and that's the language we were using. By far the most overwhelming response I got when I started the strip was people saying, 'Man, that's just how my friend and I have been talking, but we didn't know anybody else in the country felt this way.'"

Get Your War On began as an Internet-only strip with Rees placing politically charged dialogue in the mouths of clip-art figures. Rolling Stone now runs the strip monthly, and Rees has just published Get Your War On 2, the second collection of the online strips.

"You're not used to seeing that kind of language on the comics page," Rees continues. "It's not like Marmaduke or Garfield is going to say, 'motherf--ker,' but all sorts of people use that kind of language, including the vice president on the floor of the Senate, which is more offensive to me than what I'm doing on the Internet.

"When I started this comic in the fall of 2001, there wasn't yet much skepticism or discussion about this never-ending war on terrorism, and I was unsettled by how little skepticism and debate there was about the language coming out of the White House," Rees says. "I decided using a lot of profanity would pack as much emotion as possible into a limited space -- the comic strip -- and also, it would work against this kind of cautious language and rhetoric that was being used by the mainstream media."

An example of such caution was on display after the first presidential debate, when CNN's Aaron Brown tried to moderate Aaron McGruder, the creator of the comic strip The Boondocks. McGruder said that Kerry won, then went on to say, "Bush is not a smart man. He can't articulate well. He doesn't speak in complete sentences. And everyone just ignores it, like that's OK. But he's really dumb."

Brown replied, "Let's say he is not articulate. And I think they would concede he's not the most articulate guy on the planet. It doesn't mean he doesn't have convictions. It doesn't mean he believes in some things. It doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong. It just means he can't express himself."


THE MEDIA IS A CENTRAL target of frustration on the left. When Vice President Dick Cheney directed America and the media to factcheck.com -- actually factcheck.org -- during the vice presidential debate, the home page featured the article, "Bush Ad Twists Kerry's Words On Iraq." The article on the non-partisan Web site shows that presidential candidate John Kerry has been consistent in his stance on the Iraq war, and the Bush campaign has been equally consistent in editing his words to make them seem contradictory. The major networks have largely let Bush's accusations that Kerry "flip-flops" stand unchallenged.

Many liberals also argue that coverage of the election has too often trivialized issues. After each debate, CNN.com has run a scorecard with pundits assigning simple letter grades to the candidates' performances. The scorecard, like the language used to discuss the debates, treats the debates like a boxing match instead of an exchange of significant ideas. On CNN's American Morning, Bill Hemmer commented on the vice presidential debate saying, "Some say it was a slug-fest for 90 minutes." Later he told co-host Heidi Collins, "Heidi, no knockout punches last night. But did the debate level the playing field in this race?"

IN AMERICA (THE BOOK): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, the writers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show -- including host Jon Stewart -- satirize this type of coverage with a mock promotional poster featuring Kerry and Bush squaring off to box in the match billed as "The Thrilla in Vanilla." The book also includes a greeting supposedly from boxing promoter Don King, a tale of the tape, and a round-by-round scorecard.

"If you only got your news from Jon Stewart, you could do a lot worse because Jon Stewart's very good at highlighting the moments that really need to be highlighted," says Dan Perkins, who as Tom Tomorrow produces This Modern World, a cartoon that runs nationally in alternative weeklies, including Gambit Weekly.

"The Abu Ghraib story is gone now," Perkins says. "It got blamed on a few low-level people and it's just gone. Anyone who paid any attention understands it's clear it's a bigger and more pervasive problem. Sy Hersh is out there saying when we find out the truth about what's going on in Guantanamo, it's going to make Abu Ghraib look like nothing and we will hang our heads in shame. The reason I know Sy Hersh said that is that I saw him say it on The Daily Show."

Though on basic cable, The Daily Show's language has been coarse as well. As the news about Abu Ghraib was coming out, Stewart joked, "They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and lawmakers in Washington had the opportunity to put that expression to the test as Pentagon officials arranged a three-hour showing of 1,800 photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured. Their reaction boiled down to well under a thousand words, specifically three: Holy. Friggin'. Crap."

The humor remains pointed when the language is cleaner, as when Stewart interviewed CNN's Wolf Blitzer:


STEWART: TAKING THE COUNTRY to war based on information that turns out to be completely wrong because it was told to you by a guy named "Curveball" -- shouldn't that be the biggest scandal we've ever had in this country?

Blitzer: You've never made a mistake in your life? The CIA's not perfect. Sometimes they get it wrong. They got it wrong.

Stewart: In that situation, shouldn't someone be fired?

Blitzer: George Tenet did leave this weekend ...

Stewart: ... after being told he did a superb job.

Blitzer: In defense of George Tenet, we never know the successes because they're kept secret. The failures we all know.

Stewart: Are there wars we haven't fought? Countries we haven't invaded?


ACCORDING TO PERKINS, "They (The Daily Show) have begun to drop their own illusion of objectivity. He's much stronger when he drops the faux-objectivity himself since it's exactly the thing he criticizes the mainstream media for doing. Really sharp political humor -- you need to be informed and you need to have a point of view that comes through."

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Stewart deflected some of the praise for the avowedly fake news show. "We're a comedy show," he said. "We consider ourselves scolds who are good with a pun. Skilled in the art of the premise punch line. We write the premise, we wait two seconds and then we deliver the punch line -- usually something surprising, or ending with a vulgarity."

Still, people are turning to The Daily Show and late-night comedy shows for their news in increasing numbers. According to a January 2004 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, "Four years ago, young people were far more likely to regularly learn about the campaign from network evening news (39 percent) than from the Internet (12 percent) or comedy programs (9 percent). Today, all three sources rate about equally in importance, as the percent citing network news as a regular source of campaign information has fallen from 39 percent to 23 percent."

Michael J. Wolf writes in The Wall Street Journal, "Part of their success clearly lies in comedy's ability to say things that traditional media sources aren't saying about the news of the day."


IN ADDITION TO COMEDY SHOWS and the Internet, fake news such as The Onion and comic strips such as Doonesbury, This Modern World and Get Your War On are also being treated as news and information outlets.

"I have the luxury of being able to follow up on things I think are interesting," David Rees says. "Sometimes it's issues I think the mainstream media isn't covering enough; sometimes it's things that are being covered wall to wall, but it's so absurd I want to put my own two cents in." Two recent strips dealt with Tall Afar, Iraq, a city the size of Louisville that emptied into the desert as American soldiers searched it for insurgents. The military turned off water and power to the city, and left more than 150,000 people to fend for themselves while displaced. In one strip, characters speculate about the treatment of citizens of Tall Afar and its relationship to taxes at home.

In Perkins' case, readers looking for additional news turn both to his strip and his "blog" -- his Web log located at www.thismodernworld.com. "I wish it weren't that way, but if it is, it's one thing I can do," he says. "It's one thing I've tried to do all my career, draw attention to things that haven't got enough attention."

At this point, blogs and the Internet serve almost as an appendix to the mainstream media, used as a secondary source by 76 percent of Americans who use the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center study. Many serve as media critics, examining stories for signs of bias, whether in terms of reporting or what doesn't get reported. This is true across the political spectrum -- conservative bloggers are credited with blowing the whistle on CBS and Dan Rather for not fully verifying documents purporting to be George W. Bush's National Guard records.

"A LOT OF BLOGGERS SEEM to think they're going to replace the mainstream media," Perkins says. "The relationship of blogs to the mainstream media is a wood tick to a deer; it's a purely parasitical relationship, and periodically you complain the blood supply isn't oxygenated enough for your liking.

"The mainstream media has many flaws. Too often the really important stories get overlooked because the mainstream media are primarily sheep -- it's very much groupthink -- and nobody wants to go out on a limb."

Rees is slightly more charitable toward the media. "The advantage about being in power -- anytime the government opens it's mouth, it's newsworthy," he says. "The first thing the media has to do is basically transcribe whatever they said. Then if they have any energy or column inches left, they can analyze about whether it's total bullshit or not. That's why something like the Internet or my cartoon was refreshing to some people because they can cut right through all that and they don't have to be polite and pretend to be objective."


OBJECTIVITY -- THE TRADITIONAL GOAL of mainstream journalists -- is now itself in question. How do you define objectivity? In a sketch on The Daily Show, mock-reporter Rob Corddry said, "I'm a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called 'objectivity' -- might wanna look it up someday."

"Conservatives have very deliberately and very successfully 'worked the ref,'" Dan Perkins says, referring to 1992 Republican National Chair Rich Bond's admission that the party is using the sports tactic of working the ref -- complaining about unfair treatment hoping the officials would call things more favorably. "They have been whining and complaining about this myth of liberal media bias for so long that it's become an accepted conventional wisdom, and the media are so afraid of appearing to actually have this mythical liberal bias that they often don't challenge this current Republican administration anywhere near as much as they should have. If they had done their job, we might not be in this mess in Iraq.

"At some point after 9/11, after the midterm elections, Democrats finally grew a spine, finally realized they couldn't be Republicans-lite, and that they had to actually fight back and speak up. A lot more people started speaking up and the Republicans were shocked because they're so used to steamrolling any opposition."

In the past year, a number of openly left information sources have emerged, including the Air America radio network and documentaries such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which showed footage of the grisly realities of war in Iraq that is very different than the footage obtained from network news "implants." Moore and Air America's on-air talent, including Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo (and now Steve Earle), employ some of the no-holds-barred rhetoric that conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh (and, more recently, Dennis Miller) have been using for years. Franken upset conservatives when he entered the fray by writing books Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Even Howard Stern has entered the fray. The shock jock recently announced he was leaving traditional radio for Sirius Satellite Radio, but after he was politicized by his battles with FCC and Clear Channel Communications, his Web site now features links to stories titled "Bin Laden 'No Longer Top Target'" -- as well as more typical Stern material such as the video "High Pitch Erik Having Sex."

"I think the left needs to get a little more aggressive, and a little more pissed-off," Mike D. says. "We've been too passive for too long. Fight fire with fire, get a little nasty, use a few four-letter words. I don't think it's time to be a gentleman here -- people are dying. I want people to know they can say, 'F--k you' to whatever powers that be."

click to enlarge Get Your War On began as an Internet-only - comic strip with David Rees placing politically charged - dialogue in the mouths of clip-art figures. Says Rees: - "Sometimes it's issues I think the mainstream media isn't - covering enough; sometimes it's things that are being - covered wall to wall, but it's so absurd I want to put my - own two cents in." Cartoon from www.mnftiu.cc/mnftiu.cc/ - war41.html, courtesy David Rees   Image from - America (The Book)
  • Get Your War On began as an Internet-only comic strip with David Rees placing politically charged dialogue in the mouths of clip-art figures. Says Rees: "Sometimes it's issues I think the mainstream media isn't covering enough; sometimes it's things that are being covered wall to wall, but it's so absurd I want to put my own two cents in."

    Cartoon from www.mnftiu.cc/mnftiu.cc/ war41.html, courtesy David Rees Image from America (The Book)
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