Fox News puts Jon Stewart on the spot

The Daily Show host had a tougher time than normal when he appeared on Fox News on Sunday.

The host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart, went onto Fox News Sunday last night. This, in itself, isn't really big news. Stewart regularly appears on the network and exchanges matey banter with the sometimes insane Bill O'Reilly. The formula is pretty standard whenever Stewart goes into enemy territory. The Fox News host accuses him of being the doyen of mainstream liberal bias, before Stewart declares: "Hey, I'm a comedian! Don't take me seriously."

This time, however, was a little different. Jon Stewart reeled out the same lines as usual (he's a comedian working on a comedy show, not a news anchor on a news show, etc. etc.) but Wallace was ready for them, pointing to a Baltimore Sun critic who recently wrote: "When [Stewart] is wrong, he goes into the tap dance of saying he's only a comedian and shouldn't be taken seriously."

This stumped Stewart momentarily. A raw nerve touched, Wallace dug his finger in a little deeper. "Honestly, I think you want to be a political player," said Wallace with a smirk.

Rather than laugh it off - like a comedian - Stewart seemed riled. "You're wrong. You are wrong," he replied sternly. Wallace then continued to poke, arguing that Fox was simply an antidote to mainstream liberal bias. This seemed to get to Stewart, who shot back, rather too forcefully: "Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers. Consistently, every poll."

Wallace then ruined what threatened to be an interesting debate by pointing to a clip of a "comedy roast" skit broadcast elsewhere on Stewart's network and a joke involving Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's penis, which rather let the Daily Show host off the hook. "It's not exactly masterpiece theatre," argued Wallace. "You're the counterbalance to that. I'm suggesting that there is bias and you only tell part of the story." (Presumably because the joke focussed only on their sex video, rather than the break-up of their ill-fated marriage.)

Before this, however, the interview highlighted Stewart's awkward, and rather unique, position in the US media. Stewart might not want to be seen as a politcal player or a news anchor, but his comedy makes him so. His comedy is ideological and political - and that is why it's good. But the form it takes - a mock news show, that reacts to current affairs - blurs the lines between journalism and comedy. Likewise, events such as last year's "Rally for Sanity" cloud the issue further. The "I'm a comedian" defence is getting old. He is a part of US news culture, whether he wants to be or not. The Daily Show is infotainment with great jokes. The sooner Stewart accepts that, and stops relying on the comedian defence, the better.

UPDATE: I refine my views on Stewart and this interview in this piece here. Feel free to continue the kicking on a new thread.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times