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Wednesday, July 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Alternative "news" outlets snag votes

By Howard Kurtz
The Washington Post

Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" took pros to task.
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BOSTON — Jon Stewart has had his share of presidential candidates on "The Daily Show," but John Kerry has resisted the late-night lure.

"Is this a strategy by John Kerry to present himself as serious — or is he inherently unable to smile?" Stewart asks in mock-stentorian anchor tones.

The Comedy Central satirist, who chatted up Tom Brokaw here Monday, delights in making fun of the very media hordes — or "whores," as he deliberately mispronounced it — he has now joined at the Democratic convention. His job, he concedes, is to be "the dancing monkey." But he insists the real media — as opposed to the fake news show that has made him wealthy by skewering the real media — are so obsessed with entertainment that they've fouled the journalistic atmosphere.

How surreal is this? The professional funnyman is fuming about the sorry state of the news business, while a group of so-called serious reporters are trying to be funny, or at least coax Stewart into being his usual comedic self, while they absorb his tongue-lashing over breakfast.

With the Big Three networks each granting the Boston marathon a mere three hours over four nights, less-traditional media outlets have rushed to fill the vacuum. Anyone with a microphone and telegenic hair, it seems, is here, including MTV, ESPN, BET and World Wrestling Entertainment. This is the big show, and even those normally consumed by smackdowns and hip-hop want a piece.

And the mainstream media want a piece of them. "Good Morning America" is courting "Daily Show" correspondent Stephen Colbert for guest appearances, while former "Daily" wild man Mo Rocca, a "Today" contributor, is manning the offbeat beat this week for CNN.

"The excitement is coursing all around me," Rocca told Larry King from a nearly empty convention floor. And after Bill Clinton's speech Monday night, Brokaw turned for expert analysis to ... Jon Stewart.

Stewart downplays the importance of his Comedy Central platform — "I follow a show about puppets making crank calls" — even as political figures such as Howard Dean, John Edwards and Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie have appeared in search of those elusive, yawning-at-politics younger viewers.

"People do get information from the show," says Gillespie, who has also appeared on MTV and WWE's "Smackdown Your Vote." "It's important to demonstrate a sense of humor in politics." Besides, he says, "I'm a fan."

MTV's newest correspondent here is Ana Marie Cox, better known as the foulmouthed blogger Wonkette. She appeared with Colbert on "Sunday Today" and boldly told NBC's Campbell Brown that young people get their news from "The Daily Show" and Web sites "because they think the real news is also fake."

Colbert stuck to his position that "no one gives you fake news any faker than we do."
It's come to this.

Cox is considering segments on delegate fashion — such as the wearing of credentials as a carefully placed accessory — and the e-mailing addiction of those who (like her) are always tapping at what they call their CrackBerry.

"Fluffy stuff is important because politics shouldn't be like eating your spinach," Cox says, sitting on a bench in the FleetCenter hall. "I'm dessert. But politics is a full meal."

Cox dismisses much programming aimed at the youth demographic as "either high-minded civility — you should vote because it's important — or you should vote because Madonna does."

Her wardrobe orders from MTV were "anything but a suit — don't look like a grown-up." Accordingly, she is wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, black jacket and Converse sneakers.

"If terrorists attack, I'll be able to run out of the building," Cox says. "Surviving a terrorist attack is the new black."

"Cold Pizza," ESPN's morning chat show, usually cares about FleetCenter only when the Boston Celtics and Bruins play there, but Executive Producer Brian Donlon finds the "marriage between politics and sports" irresistible. Candidates Edwards, Dick Gephardt and Wesley Clark appeared on his show during the Democratic primaries.

Monday's show covered Kerry throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park ("in the dirt," an anchor griped) and interviewed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who admitted that most folks here would, if pressed, choose a Red Sox victory in the World Series over a Kerry win in November.

Such fare may be good fodder for ESPN and MTV, but Stewart sees the cable news networks leading the dumbing-down parade. He says shows like "Crossfire" and "Hardball" and CNN debates between Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan typify the medium's mindless partisan debates — kind of like having Coke and Pepsi spokesmen debating beverage supremacy.

"Ann Coulter is rewarded because she just keeps saying the craziest (stuff)," he says.

What the other cable channels need, says Stewart, is a "Roger Ailes of truth," referring to the Fox News chairman who he says injects passion into the network (though Stewart sees it as conservative passion). Anchors and reporters should openly challenge politicians' spin-laden answers rather than being "sucked into the game."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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