Politically speaking, the aughts have been one long, strange trip. Just think about what we’ve seen this decade: a disputed presidential election in 2000, the largest terrorist attack in world history occurring on U.S. soil in 2001, followed by two wars, the partial erasure of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, a congressional changing of the guard, the election of the first African-American president as well as the first with a foreign-sounding name, and the probable passage of a health care package which, depending on your point of view, is either historic, a mystery, a bit of a sham, or the first step on the road to a Stalinist U.S. of A.
Bubbling beneath all of this has been a series of remarkable changes in the world of media — television, movies, radio, and this thing we call the Internet — that have had a fairly profound impact on politics and, therefore, on real life. What follows are my choices for the ten most interesting and/or influential figures in the realm of political media. To try and slightly compensate for my obvious liberal bias (my side is far more facty, I tell ya!), I’ve got five spots each for conservative and liberal media figures respectively and I’ll be alternating and counting down from the bottom.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone — It’s possible that most regular viewers of “South Park” have little idea that Parker and Stone are self-described Republicans and I’m sure most of you don’t think of it as that much of a political show, even though rather subtle and often quite penetrating and/or infuriating thoughts about politics run through many, if not most, episodes. That’s because, like all great satirists, they are just as good at poking holes in the pretensions of their own side as that of the opposition, and their social liberalism puts them so at odds with the increasingly extremist faction that now controls much of the Republican party that some could easily mistake them for liberals. Actually, right now it’s easy to imagine them ditching the party indefinitely, along with any number of smart fellow conservatives who have already done so publicly.
Still, conservative and/or anti-liberal messages are often found on episodes of “South Park,” including attacks on such personal friends of the pair as George Clooney. Indeed, as early as 2001, famed blogger Andrew Sullivan described himself as a “South Park Republican.” (Sullivan is now one of those smart conservative ex-Republicans I mentioned above.) And, of course, there was no stronger, and certainly no funnier, attack on the antiwar efforts of the American left than “Team America: World Police” which had marionette versions of Michael Moore, Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, and Janeane Garofalo working in tandem with North Korean madman Kim Jong-il in his plans to destroy Western civilization.
Since the film’s release in 2004, more doctrinaire conservatives have tried to follow suit with such liberal-bashing comedies as “An American Carol” and “The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” a truly wretched attempt to craft a conservative alternative to “The Daily Show,” but only Parker and Stone have been able to bash liberals and their ideas and make targets like Alec Baldwin love it.
Arianna Huffington/Markos Moulitsas — At the turn of the 21st century, the political blogosphere was a right dominated place where no site was more powerful than the conservative news and gossip aggregator, Drudge Report. Today, that situation has been turned on its head largely due to the efforts of two former Republicans with almost nothing else in common other than vast self-confidence and some Greek ancestry.
Pugnacious and entrepreneurial Greek-El Salvadoran-American Berkeley resident and militantly non-hippy military veteran Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, aka “Kos,” founded Daily Kos in 2002 as a liberal blog site not too different from countless other blogs. Today it’s a largely highly innovative, largely self-policing megasite with hundreds of thousands of registered users (I’m LABobsterofAnaheim) and a virtual activist community that allows users to write their own blogs (called “dairies”) which can sometimes get as much attention as anything on the ‘net.
In 2005, a writer and GOP political wife turned L.A.-centric millionaire progressive gadfly and ex-wife named Arianna Huffington leveraged her punditry fame, money, and social connections to create The Huffington Post, a slicker, more user friendly, and livelier progressive alternative to Drudge. Although most of its content is still written by unpaid non-staff bloggers, its growth has been exponential and its paid staff includes respected political reporters who actually break stories and get called on in White House press conferences, an honor once reserved for conservative male escorts. The mercurial Huffington remains a controversial and engaging figure both within and without the liberal blogosphere.
Even in immigrant-heavy cities like Los Angeles or New York, if you ask most liberals or moderates to rank the most important issues of our time, immigration is going to be far down the list. For most grassroots conservatives, however, it ranks vastly higher and is about as defining an issue as abortion or the size of government. No voice in America has been more loudly heard on the matter than the former CNN fixture who styles himself as a “radical centrist,” but whose position on most topics strike liberals as profoundly rightwing.
For a time after the 2006 elections, Dobbs and his illegal immigration obsession seemed to dominate a conservative movement that was feeling less and less comfortable with the Bush Administration. Dobbs, however, has occasionally run afoul of the facts in fairly extreme fashion. (His outrageous and disproved charge that illegal immigration was responsible for a gigantic increase in cases of leprosy is one nasty and bizarre example.) Nevertheless, he is rare among American conservatives for being a more or less consistently populist voice who is not overly fond of large corporations. Liberals may remain suspicious — or let’s say certain — that most of what motivates the rightwing concern with immigration is poorly concealed racism and xenophobia. However, shortly after the end of his long association with CNN, Dobbs greeted the mariachi band that Jon Stewart arranged for him on “The Daily Show” set with a big smile. Immigration is a central American fact of life and is a political issue that extends all the way back to the days of Ben Franklin and the revolution. As long as he’s alive and fighting illegals, “Mr. Independent” will have a following.
A notable of both the American left and American independent film since 1989’s muckraking “Roger & Me,” Michael Moore spent the nineties working in cable TV and an unsuccessful non-documentary comedy (“Canadian Bacon” with John Candy). In the aughts, however, Moore returned in powerful fashion with 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine,” a genuinely thoughtful film about gun violence marred by some rather flagrant ethical/cinematic shortcuts, which also became the most commercially successful documentary up to that point. That was nothing next to the firestorm of controversy and success that followed his filmic essay on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which won arguably the two highest awards in film — an Oscar and a Cannes Palm D’Or — and probably remains the most widely seen discussed documentary of all time.
Subsequent Moore films, “Sicko” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” benefited from topicality, but haven’t had the same impact, perhaps because Moore always seems to go a bridge too far. Just think of his wide-eyed attitude toward the Cuban health system’s enthusiasm in helping him make his point in “Sicko.” Regardless, Moore is one of the select groups of humans to have largely created their own cinematic subgenre, the filmic op-ed. For all his posturing and his tendency to cut corners as a filmmaker, a polemicist, and a humorist, he has very few equals and no one has been better at getting difficult national conversations started.
#3 — Conservative
As an avowed liberal since age 10 (I’m an ex-Republican, too!) and a political junkie for a very long time, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine disliking a media figure much more than I disliked Rush Limbaugh. Then came Bill O’Reilly who, to my way of thinking, made a career of lying to other conservatives about what liberals actually think; I could not imagine ever being as appalled by any other human on television as I was by him. And, then came Sean Hannity and I thought he was, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert, “The Craziest F#@king Thing I’d Ever Seen” and definitely the least intelligent and most McCarthyite guy since the actual Joe McCarthy. But then, Glenn Beck arrived to make them all look like the relatively sane and down to earth fellows that they really are.
Still, give the deeply paranoid ex-Morning Zoo radio host and ultimate cable drama queen his due. From the moment — long before he joined the staff of Fox News — when he asked Islamic Congressmen Keith Ellison: “What I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies,” the cards were on the table. Making an assumption about a person’s loyalty to the nation based on their religion was now acceptable behavior for a cable anchor.
As he transitioned from CNN’s Headline news and was allowed to create his own fear chamber at Fox News, a new media world was being created that could make the Fox of the early 2000s look like PBS. Today, he now sets the stage for far right political discourse in a political environment where it’s now normal to accuse the President of United States of being not only a communist, as the apparently soon to be rehabilitated John Birch Society once said of Dwight Eisenhower, but also a terrorist sympathizer who wants to have “death panels” put your grandmother on an ice flow. You can call Beck a demagogue, and a rather transparent one at that, but the continuing popularity of his show proves one thing: he’s quite good at giving his audience exactly what they want, including lots of high drama and low (very low) comedy, and he’s not going away.
#3 — Liberal
Speaking of political entertainers with a flair for the dramatic, during the dark (for liberals) days of 2004 and 2005, at times it seemed to many of us as if only the ex-sportscaster host of “Countdown” was the only person in the mass media who was able to approach the multifaceted disaster that was the Bush Administration. Still, it was with the development of his “special comments” that both the most popular and the most embarrassing aspect of the Olbermann persona emerged.
At first, it seemed a bracing bit of ice-water in our nation’s political face but it’s gotten a little old. It was one thing to echo Edward R. Murrow and then to become emotional about a gigantic failure of leadership and governance like the response to Hurricane Katrina or the virulently deadly years-long disaster in Iraq. After a time, however, Olbermann’s addresses to former President Bush began to take on a scheduled and formulaic quality and felt more and more like deleted scenes from “A Clear and Present Danger,” with Olbermann as Jack Ryan: “No, how dare you, sir.”
At the exact same time, Olbermann’s highly entertaining and often quite funny show speaks to the hopes and anger of American liberals who are often caught between the unreality of the Republican party and the ineffectuality of the Democratic party. You can love or hate him, but in his crankiness and refusal to be told what to think, Olbermann speaks for (justifiably) angry American liberals perhaps more than anyone else in the media.
# 2 — Conservative
Olbermann may call him “comedian Rush Limbaugh” but the leader of the dittohead nation isn’t all that funny and is no mere conservative radio host. He all but created modern conservative radio and made it the dominant form in talk radio.
Believe it or not, there was a time when both liberals and conservatives had talk radio shows and often featured guests who disagreed with them. Aided by the end of the Fairness Doctrine during the waning days of the Reagan Administration, Limbaugh’s format of uninterrupted, but deliberately provocative and, for lack of a better word, entertaining pontification became the dominant form of political radio. Indeed, when Air America began to offer a liberal alternative, hosts like Randi Rhodes essentially adopted the Limbaugh format for progressive ends.
Still, even as the man who dubbed Limbaugh “a big fat idiot” back in the nineties, Al Franken, made it to the U.S. Senate, Limbaugh remains very much a force to be reckoned with and clearly remains one of the de facto heads of the conservative movement. Despite scandals, highly ironic drug problems, and painfully obvious yo-yo dieting, his “talent on loan from God,” which liberals think might emanate from a much lower authority, doesn’t seem to have dissipated one iota.
True, her ratings may still be a fraction of Fox hosts like Bill O’Reilly, but in terms of cultural influence, the charmingly snarky comic-book and cocktail aficionado who doesn’t own a TV is a real comer. Why? For starters, the first completely out lesbian to enter the cable news world has at least as many straight male fans as Ellen DeGeneres and almost as good a sense of humor. Still, it’s her tough and detailed analysis and interviews that makes her a heroine to viewers across the liberal political spectrum, uniting the currently divided left in ways that almost no other figure this side of the late Teddy Kennedy can manage.
Maddow might be a bit of wonk, but she’s no humor-free doctrinaire leftist — if you confuse her with Democracy Now’s super serious radical Amy Goodman, you’re not paying attention — and her bright spirits make even a tough day of political news easy to take. I’m obviously one of those straight-male fans I’m talking about, but if there is any kind of future for civil society in America, making it fun is a crucial, and no one does it better than my Rachel. If there is a Goldilocks pundit for the reality-based community, it’s her.
#1 — Conservative
When Sarah Palin first appeared on the national stage as a seemingly out-of-nowhere Vice Presidential candidate and gave her famed rabble-rousing acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008, NBC’s Chuck Todd declared, “The right has found it’s Obama.” It probably would have been more correct if he had declared “The right has found it’s Oprah.” True, Palin is an incredibly divisive character whose appeal is hard to fathom for well over half of the country. It’s also true that her approach to questions she doesn’t have answers for is to string numerous randomly selected multisyllabic words together in random fashion connected by “also.” But, in a conservative world that’s desperate for leadership not associated with such discredited figures as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, she represents a new beginning that returns the conservative movement to its strongest and most atavistic roots. In the wake of her resignation from the governorship of Alaska, it’s possible that her days in electoral politics are forever over and that her natural home is in the mass media. However, liberals should not relax. As dangerous as Sarah Palin might be in in the White House, she has the potential to be almost as frightening in day-time syndication.
#1 — Liberal
Okay, sure, he’s the POTUS, but he also plays him on TV. And, especially in the wake of the current highly compromised health care refore package, some on the left might disagree with my characterization of him as a liberal. Of course, at the exact same time, a frightening number of rightwingers — including one former SNL cast member — insist he’s a communist, or perhaps a fascist, or somehow both. (Oh, let’s just call him an Anarcho-Syndicalist and have done with it!) Leaving all that aside, Obama’s highly polished mastery of television both in interviews and when speaking before large audiences has been a crucial reality of American political life since he walked on to the national stage with his career-making address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Of course, now and during the 2008 presidential campaign, the knock on Obama was that his entire appeal was based on “just words.” Still, in the beginning was the word and no politician in my lifetime has had such mastery of both the words and music of politics. Even if, right at this moment, approximately half of the activist left fear he has lost the beat of that music to some degree, no one in today’s political world can match his virtuosic gift for self-presentation. If he can only figure out a way to recapture the energy that made him so unstoppable as a campaigner, he could easily prove to be the ultimate media president. That should be a frightening thought for his opponents.
Honorable Mentions — Conservative
Roger Ailes — Fox News Founder. ‘Nuff said.
Bill O’Reilly — Papa Bear!
Chuck Norris and Jon Voight — One played an ass-kicker in innumerable C-grade movies and TV shows; one played an ass seller in a film classic. “Walker Texas Ranger and the Midnight Cowboy” is a movie I’d pay to see.
Honorable Mentions — Liberal
Al Franken — Okay, so the aughts weren’t quite the Al Franken decade, there’s always hope for the 2010s. Nevertheless, from “Saturday Night Live” to a wonkish-but-entertaining radio show, to the United States Senate all within ten years ain’t bad. Yes, he’s good enough, smart enough, and conservatives really, really hate his damn guts.
Josh Marshall — The creator of the fast growing “Talking Points Memo” brings a hard, factual realism to center-left political reportage. You might actually learn something like the truth there.
Bill Maher — He’s hilarious and kind of a jerk, but he’s our jerk. (I think.)
Out of Competition — Conservative
Okay, I actually have a sneaking suspicion that, in real life, Stephen Colbert is not only vastly more liberal than his TV version, but he’s probably more than a hair or two to the left of his fake news colleague, Jon Stewart. Then why, does Colbert get a pass from conservatives they’d never extend to Stewart?
Is it that conservatives know that, liberal or not, Stephen really is a religious Catholic, though closer in his attitudes to Dorothy Day than your typical member of Opus Dei? Or is my perception of him as a liberal not so much because of the fact that he admits to being one but my own confirmation bias? Regardless, no one has shone a brighter light on the thinking of today’s conservative movement, and both liberals and conservatives love him for it. Nice trick.
Out of Competition — Liberal
Before MSNBC decided to begin cornering the market in TV liberals, there were times this decade when it seemed like looking critically at what was going on in Washington and elsewhere was all but illegal. Fox News’s status as an arm of the rightwing of the Republican Party was known only to political junkies, and pundits like Bill O’Reilly actively sought to limit the frames of acceptable debate while mainstream talkers seemed to tacitly accept those limits.
In fact, during 2000-2003, there was exactly one place in the mass media that dared to not only to openly examine the absurdities of the Bush Administration, but to also shine a light on a massive dereliction of duty of the chickenhearted Beltway press. That was, of course, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Here’s the irony: though Stewart is a hero to American liberals, the real Jon Stewart might not be quite so liberal as both lefty fans and conservative haters imagine him to be. He was ready to vote for John McCain in 2000 if he had gotten the Republican nomination that year, something no true liberal would have done even then, and he has often said things that would ally him more with the political center — though that center keeps shifting.
His most famous confrontations, against CNBC’s Jim Cramer and as a guest on the now defunct talking heads shriek-a-thon, “Crossfire,” might have been interpreted by some as partisan attacks, but in reality they were an argument against the forces that want to distract us with half-truths. It’s just possible that Stewart’s real gift is something better than ideology: a really great bullshit detector. If there’s one thing we’ll need to safeguard our democracy, that would be it.