Not Necessarily the News

We know a lot more now about the dangers and disasters of U.S. empire building in Iraq—the ongoing bloodshed on the ground, expansion of terrorist activities, the huge budget-busting costs of occupation, the stretching and undermining of the military and the increased sense of fear and insecurity that many Americans feel as a result of the invasion and its potential for blowback.

We also now have a better handle on the immediate and flimsy reasons for the invasion. Bush told us we were going to war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened us. Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons programs (the aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa). He had huge stocks of chemical and biological weapons that could be launched somehow in a way that threatened the United States. And finally, that Saddam was working with Al Qaeda. According to some polls, as much as 70 percent of the public believed this. But now it seems clear these were all falsehoods. The lies and deceptions Bush and his minions were feeding to the media are making their way into public discourse and are being covered fairly extensively in the press, in columns by Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, in wide-ranging reporting at the Washington Post and elsewhere.

But far, far less is known about the planning and the actors that brought us this foreign policy disaster. What ideas and worldviews motivated the push to overreach and try to dominate the globe, with Iraq as step No. 1? What secret maneuvers and behind-the-scenes policy power struggles after the attacks of 9/11 led the United States to invade a country that had nothing to do with that infamous day?

The reminder that the media often reports the "news" as fed to it by those in power, and skips past the real news—the reasons for the behaviors and policies—is good reason for the continued existence of Project Censored, a program in its 27th year that collects under-reported stories from around the country and compiles a list of the Top 10 "censored stories" as well as 15 runners-up. About 200 students and faculty from Sonoma State University compiled and reviewed the stories for Project Censored. The project describes its mission as "to stimulate responsible journalists to provide more mass media coverage of those under-covered issues and to encourage the general public to demand mass media coverage of those issues or to seek information from other sources."

Most of the stories on Project Censored’s top 10 relate to the United States’ war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, this emphasis indicates how the issue dominates the news, but on the other, how few news consumers really understand how it happened and why. Taken together, these stories paint a chilling picture of a long-ranging plan to dominate huge sections of the globe militarily and economically, and to silence dissent, curb civil liberties and undermine workers’ rights in the course of it. Some of the information published as part of the project is pretty shocking, like the fact that the United States removed 8,000 incriminating pages from Iraq’s weapons report to the United Nations or that Donald Rumsfeld may have a plan to deliberately provoke terrorists so we can react. Other issues like the attacks on civil liberties have been covered in the mainstream press, but not in the comprehensive way Project Censored would like to see. The Top 10 censored stories, followed by the 15 runners-up, are:

 

The neoconservative plan for global dominance

Sources: The Sunday Herald (September 15, 2002), Harper’s Magazine (October 2002), Mother Jones (March 2003), Pilger.com (December 12, 2002)

Project Censored has decided that the incredible lack of public knowledge of the United States’ plan for total global domination,
outlined by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), represents the media’s biggest failure over the past year. PNAC plans advocated the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan and other current foreign policy objectives, long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Chillingly, one document published by the PNAC in 2000 actually describes the need for a "new Pearl Harbor" to persuade the American public to accept the acts of war and aggression the Administration wants to carry out. "But most people in the country are totally unaware that the PNAC exists," said Peter Phillips, a professor at Sonoma State and major domo of The Project Censored Project. "And that failure has aided and abetted this disaster in Iraq."

According to Project Censored authors, "In the 1970s, the United States and the Middle East were embroiled in a tug-of-war over oil. At the time, the prospect of seizing control of Arab oil fields by force was considered out of line. Still, the idea of Middle East dominance was very attractive to a group of hard-line Washington insiders that included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol and other operatives. During the Clinton years they were active in conservative think tanks like the PNAC. When Bush was elected they came roaring back into power."

In an update for the Project Censored Web site, Mother Jones writer Robert Dreyfuss noted, "There was very little examination in the media of the role of oil in American policy toward Iraq and the Persian Gulf, and what coverage did exist tended to pooh-pooh or debunk the idea that the war had anything to do with it."

 

Homeland security threatens civil liberties

Sources: Global Outlook (Winter 2003), Rense.com (February 11, 2004 and Global Outlook, Volume 4), Center for Public Integrity (publicintegrity.org). Corporate media partial coverage: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (May 11, 2003), The Tampa Tribune (March 28, 2003), Baltimore Sun (February 21, 2003)

While the media did cover the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act, and the so-called PATRIOT Act II, which was leaked to the press in February 2003, there wasn’t sufficient analysis of some of the truly dangerous and precedent-setting components of both acts. This goes especially for the shocking provision in PATRIOT II that would allow even U.S. citizens to be treated as enemy combatants and held without counsel, simply on suspicion of connections to terrorism.

Under section 501, a U.S. citizen engaging in lawful activity can be picked off the streets or from home and taken to a secret military tribunal with no access to or notification of a lawyer, the press or family. This would be considered justified if the agent "inferred from the conduct" suspicious intention.

Fortunately, PATRIOT I is under major duress in Congress as both parties are supporting significant revisions. Yet President Bush, realizing that he and his unpopular Attorney General, John Ashcroft, are losing popular support, is threatening a veto, and has aggressively gone on the offensive in favor of the repugnant PATRIOT II. Let’s see if the media has learned its lesson from PATRIOT I. Will it probe the new legislation much more thoroughly than the first round, which received inadequate analysis post-9/11?

 

United States illegally removes pages from Iraq United Nations report 

Source: The Humanist and ArtVoice (March/ April 2003), first covered by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

Story No. 3 is the shockingly under-reported fact that the Bush Administration removed a whopping 8,000 of 11,800 pages from the report the Iraqi government submitted to the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The pages included details on how the United States had actually supplied Iraq with chemical and biological weapons and the building blocks for weapons of mass destruction. The pages reportedly implicate not only officials from the Reagan and Bush administrations but also major corporations including Bechtel, Eastman Kodak and Dupont, and the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture.

In comments to Project Censored, Michael Niman, author of one of the articles cited, noted that his article was based on secondary sources, mostly from the international press, since the topic received an almost complete blackout in the U.S. press. Referring to his first Project Censored nomination in 1989, for which he went into the bush in Costa Rica, he said, "With such thorough self-censorship in the U.S. press, reading the international press is now akin to going into the remote bush."

 

Rumsfeld’s plan to provoke terrorists 

Source: CounterPunch (November 1, 2002)

Moscow Times columnist and CounterPunch contributor Chris Floyd developed this story off a small item in the Los Angeles Times in October 2002 about secret armies the Pentagon has been developing around the world. "The Pro-active, Preemptive Operations Group (or so called Pee-Twos) will carry out secret missions designed to ‘stimulate reactions’ among terrorist groups, provoking them into committing violent acts which would then expose them to ‘counterattack’ by U.S. forces," Floyd wrote. "The Pee-Twos will thus come in handy whenever the regime hankers to add a little oil-laden real estate or a new military base to the Empire’s burgeoning portfolio. Just find a nest of violent malcontents, stir ‘em with a stick, and presto: instant justification for whatever level of intervention-conquest-raping that you might desire."

Floyd notes that while the story received considerable play in international and alternative media, it has hardly been mentioned in the mainstream U.S. press.

"At first glance, this decided lack of interest might seem a curious reaction, given the American media’s insatiable—and profitable—obsession with terrorism," he told Project Censored. "But the media’s equally intense abhorrence of moral ambiguity, especially when it involves possible American complicity in mayhem and murder, makes the silence easier to understand."

 

The effort to make unions disappear

Sources: Z Magazine (November 20, 2002), War Times (October 11, 2002), The Progressive (November 2003), The American Prospect (March 2003)

The war on terrorism has also had the convenient side benefit for conservatives of making it easier for employers and the government to suppress organized labor in the name of national security. For example, in October 2002 Bush was able to force striking International Longshore and Warehouse Union members back to work in the San Francisco Bay Area in the name of national safety.

Chicago journalist Lee Sustar noted that labor coverage is usually woefully inadequate in the mainstream media, even though union membership, while shrinking, still makes up a national constituency that is 13 million strong.

"Twenty years ago every paper had a beat reporter on labor who knew what was going on," he said. "Today that’s not the case. Besides a token story on Labor Day or a human-interest story here and there, you don’t see coverage of labor. You only see coverage from the business side," said Sustar, although Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter for The New York Times, is one obvious exception to Sustar’s claim.

Ann Marie Cusac, whose story for The Progressive about the decimation of unions was cited, said she thinks the position of organized labor is worse than it has ever been.

She combed National Labor Relations Board files for egregious examples of the lengths to which employers will go to bust unions. And she found a lot. "They had a woman with carpal tunnel syndrome pulling nails out of boards above her head, because they wanted her to go on disability so she couldn’t organize," she said. "But she did it, even knowing she might disable herself. The willingness of people to sacrifice, because they know how important it is to unionize, is a sign of hope."

 

Closing access to information technology 

Source: Dollars and Sense (September 2002)

The potential closing of access to digital information is a development that could have a harmful effect on the powerful role online media plays in side-stepping media gatekeepers and keeping people better informed. "The FCC and Congress are currently overturning the public-interest rules that have encouraged the expansion of the Internet up until now," writes Arthur Stamoulis, whose story was published in Dollars and Sense.

The Internet currently provides a buffet of independent and international media sources to counter the mostly homogenous offerings of mainstream U.S. media, especially broadcast.

As the shift to broadband gains momentum, cable companies are trying hard to dominate the market and eventually control access.

In 2002 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to allow cable networks to avoid common carrier requirements. Now the giant phone companies, who offer the competitive DSL services, want the same freedoms to control access to their lines. In the long run, instead of the thousands of small ISP services to choose from, the switch from dial-up to broadband means that users will have less and less choice over who provides their Internet access.

While the media finally woke up and gave significant coverage to the recent public rebellion against the FCC, which voted to increase media concentration even further, there has been scant coverage of the possibility that the Internet as we know it might be lost.

 

Treaty busting by the United States

Sources: Connections (June 2002), The Nation (April 2002), Ashville Global Report (June 20-26, 2002), Global Outlook (Summer 2002)

"The United States is a signatory to nine multilateral treaties that it has either blatantly

violated or gradually subverted," says Project Censored. These include the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty Banning Antipersonnel Mines and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Just as the Bush Administration is crowing about the possibility of Saddam Hussein manufacturing nuclear or chemical weapons, it is violating treaties meant to curb these threats, including the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Commission.

 

U.S./British forces continue use of depleted uranium weapons despite massive evidence of negative health effects

Sources: The Sunday Herald (March 30, 2003), Hustler Magazine (June 2003), Children of War (March 2003)

The eighth story on the list deals with another subject that victims have tried to get into the mainstream media for more than a decade—the United States’ use of depleted uranium in Iraq, in both the recent invasion and in the Gulf War. Depleted uranium (DU) was also used in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia.

The publications cited, including hard-core porn magazine Hustler, note that cancer rates have skyrocketed in Iraq since the first Gulf War, most likely because of the massive contamination of the soil with DU from explosive, armor-piercing munitions. U.S. soldiers are also victims of this travesty, suffering Gulf War syndrome and other ailments that many feel sure are linked to their exposure to DU.

Reese Erlich, a freelance journalist who reported on the topic for a syndicated radio broadcast and related website report, said that the Federal government has dealt with the issue of DU the way the tobacco industry deals with its liability problems. "They’ll fog the issue so no one can say for sure what’s happening," he said. "They’ll commission studies so they can say, ‘There are conflicting reports,’ [or] ‘We need more information.’"

He noted that while the U.S. media is quiet about the issue, it is a hot topic in the international press. "When you get outside the United States, the media is much more critical," he said. "They refer to it as a weapon of mass destruction. This will be a legacy the United States has left in Iraq. Long after the electricity is repaired and the oil wells are pumping, children will be getting cancer. The United States knew this would happen, it can’t claim ignorance."

 

In Afghanistan, poverty, women’s rights and civil disruption are worse then ever

Sources: The Nation (October 14, 2002), Left Turn (March/April, 2003), The Nation (April 29, 2002), Mother Jones (July 8, 2002). Mainstream coverage: Toronto Star (March 2, 2003)

Though his work isn’t cited here, Erlich also reported on the topic of the ninth story on the list, the continuing poverty, civil disruption and repression of women in Afghanistan. While the country has virtually dropped off the radar screen in the United States press and public consciousness, it is suffering its worst decade of poverty ever. Warlords and tribal fiefdoms continue to rule the country, and women are as repressed as ever, contrary to the feel-good images of burqa-stripping that have been broadcast in the media here.

"Reporters by and large don’t go to Afghanistan to report on what they see," said Erlich, who spent several weeks reporting in the country. "They go to the State Department officials, so everything is filtered through these rose-colored glasses, saying things are getting better. But they’re not."

 

Africa faces new threat of new colonialism 

Source: Left Turn (July/August, 2002), Briarpatch (vol. 32, No. 1), excerpted from The CCPA Monitor, (October, 2002), New Internationalist (January-February, 2003)

While Afghanistan is being essentially ignored, the tenth story on the list shows how African countries are getting plenty of attention from the United States—but not the kind of attention they need. These stories deal with the formation in June, 2002, of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or NEPAD, by a group of leaders from the world’s eight most powerful countries (the G8) who claim to be carrying out an anti-poverty campaign for the continent. But the group doesn’t include the head of a single African nation, and critics charge that the plan is more about opening the continent to international investment and looting its resources than fighting poverty.

"NEPAD is akin to Plan Colombia in its attempt to employ Western development techniques to provide economic opportunities for international investment," says Project Censored.

 

Bleeding green
The Bush Administration’s dubious deeds extend to the ecosystem

The current issue of Mother Jones magazine features a 20-page package on the Bush Administration’s stealth war on environmental regulations. This list, reprinted here with permission from the magazine, offers a quick overview. For more on the subject, see the September/October issue of Mother Jones or visit www.motherjones.com and check out "The UnGreening of America."Tons of additional air pollutants permitted to be released by 2020 under Bush’s "Clear Skies" plan: 42 million

Estimated number of premature deaths that will result: 100,000

Estimated amount that Clear Skies-related health problems will cost taxpayers, per year: $115 billion

Days after Bush took office that he reneged on his campaign promise to regulate CO2 emissions frompower plants: 53

Days after the U.S. Geological Survey released a 12-year study indicating that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would pose
"significant harm to wildlife" that the agency reversed itself: 7

Years that the Bush Administration says global warming must be further studied before substantive action can be taken: 5

Number of members of the 63-person energy advisory team Bush convened early in his administration who did not have ties to corporate energy interests: 1

Amount that energy team members gave to Republican candidates in the 2000 election: $8 million

Percentage of "replacement
wetlands" developers are required to create that end up failing, according to the General Accounting Office: 80

Area, in acres, of wetlands, lakes and streams opened to development under a proposal to end Federal oversight of "isolated waters": 20 million

Area, in acres, of Lake Superior: 20.3 million

Estimated acres of public land the Administration announced in April it will open to logging, road building and mining: 220 million

Acreage of California and Texas, combined: 267 million

Number of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone National Park this winter, per day: 1,100

Percentage of the 360,000 public comments received by the Park Service that were against repealing the Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in the park: 80

Percentage of Superfund cleanup costs paid for by corporate polluters in 1996: 82

Percentage that will be paid for by taxpayers under Bush’s 2004 budget: 79

Amount at which the Environmental Protection Agency historically valued each human life when conducting economic analyses of proposed regulations: $6.1 million

Amount the EPA considers each person worth as of 2003: $3.7 million

Average annual number of species added to the Endangered and Threatened Species list between 1991 and 2000: 68.4

Number voluntarily added by the Bush Administration since taking office: 0

Grade Bush received on the League of Conservation Voters’ 2002 presidential report card: D-

Grade he received in 2003: F

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Clear the Air, Department of the Interior, Earthjustice, General Accounting Office, League of Conservation Voters, National Park Service, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

 

In other news…
Project Censored’s 15 runners-up
to the Top 10 censored stories of the year


11) U.S. implicated in Taliban massacre

12) Bush Administration behind failed military coup in Venezuela

13) Corporate personhood challenged

14) Unwanted refugees a global problem

15) U.S. military’s war on the earth

16) Plan Puebla-Panama and the FTAA

17) Clear Channel monopoly draws criticism

18) Charter forest proposal threatens access to public lands

19) U.S. dollar vs. the Euro another reason for the invasion of Iraq

20) Pentagon increases private military contracts

21) Third World austerity policies coming soon to a city near you

22) Welfare reform up for re-authorization, but still no safety net

23) Argentina crisis sparks cooperative growth

24) Aid to Israel fuels repressive occupation in Palestine

25) Convicted corporations receive perks instead of punishment

 

Not Necessarily the News

It starts with the music , one of those brass-and-percussion fanfares that news anchors like to hum on their way to work. Then the announcer trumpets: “From Comedy Central’s World News Headquarters in New York, this is ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.’” And before you’ve had a chance to sort through the incongruity of Comedy Central having its own news division, let alone one with a global reach, the music has changed to a soft-rock vamp and the camera has zeroed in on Stewart, a former-frat-boy type with facial features that wouldn’t be out of place on Mount Rushmore. The hair’s a dignified blend of dark brown and gray. And what’s more important, there’s lots of it. For although we Americans are capable of devoting an entire television channel to comedy, there’s no room for a bald anchor.

Stewart isn’t a news anchor, of course. He just plays one on TV. But is it too hard to imagine that someday in the future, when Tom, Dan and Peter can no longer see the TelePrompTer, Stewart will be asked to serve as the National Entertainment State’s once-over-lightly Master of Ceremonies? He’s got the paper-shuffling, pen-twirling thing down. And he’s capable of shifting, in a nanosecond, from utter seriousness to utter fatuity. You laugh, but that may be what we’re looking for in the news anchors of tomorrow. In the past, we wanted them to be wise. (Walter Cronkite, everybody’s favorite uncle.) In the future, we may want them to be wiseasses. For the times, they are a changin’, ladies and gentlemen, and the news better change with them or it could find itself out of a job.

We’ve all seen the statistics. In 1962 (or ‘72 or ‘82 or ‘92) blah-blah percent of Americans read a daily newspaper or watched the nightly news. Today blah-blah percent do, the new blah-blah being significantly lower than the old blah-blah. And the percentages for young people—that Holy Grail of advertising known as Generation X—are even worse. As the 20-odd million gray hairs who tune in to the network news every night get grayer and grayer, nobody’s joining them in the living room. Instead, we’re tuning in to “The Daily Show.” Or we’re poring over the Onion, that weekly cartwheel of fake headlines. Billing itself as “America’s Finest News Source,” the Onion is the newspaper to end all newspapers, a wake-up call to an industry that appears to have taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

Does the proliferation of news outlets like “The Daily Show” and the Onion, that scribble a Mona Lisa mustache on the face of the Fourth Estate, signify the final triumph of infotainment? The giggle-ization of American society? The decline of Western civilization? The end of the world? Or do they, in that tongue-in-cheek, finger-in-the-ribs way of theirs, offer us a view of the world that traditional news outlets are largely blind to? Does Generation X, which supposedly can’t find Iraq on a map, know something the rest of us don’t know—that Baghdad is both a dateline and a punchline? When life turns into a media circus, isn’t a fun-house mirror the best way to see what’s going on? And aren’t news spoofs, therefore, a more accurate reflection of our time? Or are they just, you know, funny?

Stewart likes to open the show with a dollop of pure nonsense—memorably forgettable musings on, say, how risky it is to ignore that old warning about letting the bedbugs bite. (“They won’t stop,” he says with feigned resignation.) Then it’s on to Headlines, a series of riffs on the day’s top stories à la the Weekend Update segment of “Saturday Night Live.” For those who don’t remember “That Was the Week That Was,” a mid-‘60s TV series that made a mockery of current events, “Saturday Night Live” would seem to have invented the fake news broadcast. And its long line of anchors, from Chevy Chase to Dennis Miller to Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, provides a shadow history of the news-reading game. Chevy Chase was Chevy Chase, and we weren’t—anchor as smug superstar. Miller was one of us, only with more flair and more hair, lots more hair.

And Fey/Fallon? Well, let’s just say they’re cute as heck and funny as hell—anchors as precocious eighth-graders. At least Fey seems precocious. Fallon sometimes seems preconscious, dozing off in the middle of a bit. They’re supposed to be a mismatch made in heaven. As producer Lorne Michaels said about the pairing, according to Fallon: “Tina’s going to be the brainy girl, and you’re going to be the kind of goofy guy who doesn’t do his homework and asks her for answers and stuff.” They certainly look the part, Fey with her smarty-pants glasses and Fallon with his randomly spiked hair. But they both have a tendency to crack up at their own jokes, as if they were broadcasting from somebody’s basement. Consequently, the political humor, coming from the mouths of babes, doesn’t seem all that political. Weekend Update used to take its lack of seriousness a lot more seriously.

Stewart, on the other hand, has that you’re-either-born-with-it-or-you’re-not quality called gravitas. When his face is at rest, he could actually be an anchor—he’s that boringly handsome. And his voice, although not quite up there with the dearly departed Phil Hartman’s, has just enough of that adman/madman plasticity to sell us the news as if it were a used car. He isn’t alone, of course. Like any big-time news anchor, he’s surrounded by a stable of thoroughbred correspondents, all of whom should have been put out to pasture long ago. Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, Nancy Walls—are these not the most hilarious people on TV right now, somehow managing to keep straight faces while their routines twist in and out of plausibility? Or do the show’s writers, led by former Onion scribe Ben Karlin, deserve a lot of the credit?

When the show’s clicking, the laughs come from everywhere, whether it’s Helms using red and blue M&Ms to show the recent shift in the Senate or Stewart ad-libbing a remark about George Bush’s “stimulus package” when a video clip of the spread-legged president conferring with someone at the White House reveals more presidential timber than many of us care to see. For all its massaging of our funny bones, “The Daily Show” can be surprisingly biting, as when an oil-industry representative (or at least an anchor playing one) says about the latest megaton tanker spill, “Fuel oil is good for fish. They like it. It’s like vitamins.” At such moments, you can’t help but wholeheartedly endorse the show’s ambitious tagline: “Now More Than Before.”

The Onion (also available on the web at www.theonion.com) may not be able to make that claim. Like so many newspapers, it often succumbs to deadline pressure these days, sending out “articles” that are printed to fit rather than fit to print. Articles have never been the paper’s strong suit. After repeating the headline (often verbatim) in the lead sentence, the writers tend to spin their wheels, as if developing a comic premise were a completely foreign idea. Ah, but those headlines! Like haiku, they’re still capable of condensing a world of insight into a few choice words. “Kevin Bacon Linked to Al-Qaeda”—how simple, how deceptively perceptive. Or how’s this for sheer pithiness: “Vote, Voter Wasted.” The dropping of “a,” “an” and “the”—or any other word that might slow down a one-liner—has been a source of constant amusement for the Onion’s writers and readers.

“The Daily Show” and the Onion could be owned by the same media conglomerate, so closely do their senses of humor mesh. And behind those senses of humor is a sense of the world as this man-bites-dog-eat-dog media fishbowl where everybody lies, cheats and steals, both to get ahead and just for the hell of it. Neither outlet is particularly partisan; they tend to be equal-opportunity offenders. But both offer a thorough critique of the way news is packaged these days, everything arranged into neat little boxes and wrapped up with shiny bows. In fact, that may be the major difference between “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and, say, “The Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.” Brokaw refuses to acknowledge the shiny bows. Stewart goes after them with the Christmas-morning glee of a 6-year-old child.

So, if you were an 18-to-34-year-old Nielsen ratings point, which show would you watch? A lot of ink has been spilled in the last 10 years trying to define Generation X, those hazy, lazy, crazy kids of the boom-and-bust ‘80s and ‘90s. And the general consensus seems to be that, when it comes to the news, they…well, they’re not terribly into the news. That’s what the pollsters tell us anyway. But maybe the pollsters are wrong. Maybe Gen Xers are interested in the news. Maybe they’re just not interested in having the news presented to them with a straight face. Maybe they prefer their news at a slant. These are kids who grew up in the media whirlwind, after all. They’re used to spin. And maybe what they want is for the news to acknowledge when spin is being spun—with a well-timed smirk, perhaps.

Jon Stewart is the Man of a Thousand Smirks, each one perfectly timed so as to squeeze every last ounce of laughter out of the studio audience. But if that was all Stewart was, a smirk machine, then “The Daily Show” wouldn’t be worth watching. He also happens to be a surprisingly well-informed guy and a fantastic interviewer. “I like to read the papers, keep up with the world,” he joked one night, but you get the impression he wasn’t joking, really. His interests range far and wide: He can trade deep thoughts with David Halberstam one night, compare favorite videogames with Ja Rule the next. And his guests are as likely to be Washington politicos as Hollywood stars. It’s an opportunity for the pols to let their hair—or, in John McCain’s case, their comb-overs—down. But even that can be instructive. (Don’t quit your day job, senator.)

Are we a nation of infotainment whores? Would the vast majority of us prefer to be well entertained rather than well informed, leaving the diehards to their C-SPAN marathons? Perhaps, but what such questions don’t take into account are the myriad ways we make sense of the world these days. We combine something we read in the newspaper with something we watched on the nightly news with something we heard on the radio with something Jay Leno said with something our neighbor said with something that was floating by in cyberspace, and tomorrow it may be a whole new mix of sources. We’re constantly bombarded with information, and the stuff that tends to stick is the shtick. Is it any wonder, then, that most presidential candidates manage to find their way onto a late-night TV talk show?

“The show is not a megaphone,” Stewart said when asked whether he prefers to go for the funny bone or the jugular. But he may be underestimating his ability to shape the hearts and minds of his audience—i.e., his role as both baby-boom and baby-bust mouthpiece. (Barely 40, he’s a tweener.) In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, it was David Letterman who led the late-night talk-show hosts back up Comedy Hill, pausing briefly to wipe Dan Rather’s eyes, then slowly turning the valve on the nitrous-oxide tank. But the most purely emotional return to the air may have been Stewart’s. Fighting back tears, he delivered a nine-minute valentine to the Big Apple that Howard Stern would rib him about for weeks afterward. “Our show has changed,” Stewart said, softly. “What it’s become, I don’t know.”

Has it changed? Not so you’d notice. The Onion, newly arrived in New York City, also stopped the presses for a few days. (Nothing puts comedy writers out of business faster than a national tragedy.) But after an appropriate period of mourning, it discovered that people wanted to laugh more than ever, not less. “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With,” the major headline in the September 27 issue announced, nailing to the wall the Bush administration’s determination to kick someone’s, anyone’s, ass. By the following week, things had pretty much returned to abnormal: “Greenland Thinks It Looks Fat in Mercator Projection.” But the headline that seemed to capture the mood of the country may also have represented a bit of wishful thinking on the Onion’s part: “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.”

The September 11 attacks threatened to end our decades-long pose of ironic detachment, which baby-busters share with baby-boomers. Suddenly, we were thunderstruck with the importance of being earnest. We didn’t want to mime quote marks with our fingers every time we said something. But it turns out that irony, which has been handed down from David Letterman to Conan O’Brien, from “Seinfeld” to “Friends,” from Euripides to Shakespeare to Swift to Twain to Mencken to Wolfe to Eggers, is bigger than Osama bin Laden, bigger than Al-Qaeda, bigger than war. Irony has often been considered a luxury item, something to indulge in during times of peace and prosperity. But maybe it’s closer to a necessity, something to reach for when the powers that be refuse to say what they mean, mean what they say.

And maybe “The Daily Show” and the Onion, like a pair of corrective lenses, allow us to see what we would otherwise miss, which is that the mainstream media are themselves distorting the truth, skewing the news. If present trends continue, there’ll come a day when none of us reads a daily newspaper or watches the nightly news. We’ll get everything off the web, or we’ll get a little bit here and a little bit there, as we’ve always done. And the news spoofs? Maybe they won’t be called the news spoofs anymore. Maybe they’ll be called the news. Maybe Jon Stewart, America’s Jokemaster General, will tell us everything we need to know about this wacky world we live in. Today, you have to keep up with the news to get all the jokes. Tomorrow, you may have to get all the jokes to keep up with the news.