Media

The Truth Smirks

Jim Wallis: The Hebrew prophets often use humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across, and I feel you do a combination of all three. How conscious are you of this, and are you trying to make social change happen?

Jon Stewart: It may be true that the Hebrew prophets used humor in that regard, to create social change, but it was also used by Borscht Belt social directors. We’ve got a lot more in common with them than the prophets. Everyone here has a lot of respect for activists and an appreciation for what it takes to be an activist. For most of us, writing jokes, playing a little Guitar Hero in the afternoon, and calling it a day seems to be the way to go. Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit. The targets we choose, the way we go about it—it’s got more of a personal venting aspect than a socially conscious aspect.

But you do provide a perspective.

It’s definitely a perspective in the way that an editorial cartoonist might provide a perspective. We provide a different way of framing things, but it is [different from] the framing devices used by politicians. Their aim isn't the framing device; that’s merely a method to get to a goal. For us, that is the goal. Some nights we get the recipe right, some nights we don’t, some nights it’s too strident, some nights too silly, some nights it’s juvenile, but our goal is to make ourselves proud of the product in terms of how we crafted it, the jokes we came up with, that sort of thing.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Out of the Media's Eye

Before I met a refugee family from Burma, I was mostly unaware of the southeast Asian country. For a year of Sunday afternoons, I taught this family English, took them to the library, and helped them apply for green cards; they taught me courage, hope, resilience—and the story the newspaper headlines hadn’t.

All four children were born in a Thai refugee camp, where the parents had lived the better part of their lives, nearly 20 years. One afternoon they slipped a video into their church-donated VCR and implored me to watch with them. “This Pop’s village,” the oldest girl told me as a lazy river lined with men fishing and women chatting appeared on the TV. Then her face grew serious. “We can’t live there again,” she said.

I drove home wondering: How many other stories haven’t I heard? And how do we learn of, and engage with, the places and stories outside the media’s eye?

The media has blind spots, and they threaten to become our own. The 24-hour news cycle loves novelty; it has room for short-lived cyclones and monk-led protests, but not decades of continuous oppression and ethnic cleansing. There’s also the matter of access. Countries embroiled in human rights abuses are hard, sometimes even impossible, for reporters to get into. North Korea is currently detaining, and plans a June trial for, two U.S. journalists who were covering the plight of refugees along the Chinese border. When and if the media gains access, it often must trade full disclosure to do so; the information that passes censorship can wind up being lukewarm pseudo-truth.

The truth is that Burma is not the only place that’s been hidden. Armed conflict in Colombia has created at least 2.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs)—perhaps as many as 4.6 million since 1985, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement. The genocide in Rwanda was weeks old before international attention caught on.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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