Jon Stewart


In addition to the tropical vegetation, high humidity and intense sunlight, one difficult to miss sign that one is no longer in one of the so called richer countries is the size of the satellite dishes that some people have in their backyard.

Big Satellite Dish in residential area in Trinidad

The residential satellite dishes have to be of sufficient size in order to collect feeds from the periphery of the area where American television satellites are aiming their signal. It is fortuitous that Caribbean countries such as Trinidad are geographically close enough to mainland USA to make this possible. Anyone who can afford the hardware can see almost everything that Americans watch on television, including most of that shown on cable. Less than a decade ago, satellite piracy became a thriving domestic industry, spawning a handful of cable companies who would maintain a cluster of dishes of varying size, aimed at a number of satellites, and piping the signals to residences who would gladly pay for the ability to watch American entertainment without having to tear up their backyard. Few cared about the legality of the process. For years I was able to watch the commercial free movie channels for a small monthly fee that was far below what most Americans were paying.

The local cable package included most of the major terrestrial networks and 24 hour cable news. Yes, that includes FoxNews. Sometimes I wonder if the leniency with which these news companies have demonstrated, when enforcing the copyright on their video feeds in the Caribbean, can be partly explained by some wider initiative to keep feeding propaganda to any nation that would accept pro-US messages willingly. One of the local television channels fills a significant proportion of their schedule with Voice of America programming. Of course this can cut both ways. We also get the Comedy Channel, and last week I was able to see the last Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) of 2006, featuring a self contradicting Bush. Viewing the complete show on cable is at least as humorous as watching the video clips. However I’m unsure whether many Trinidadian viewers will perceive this show to be a serious counter to the mainstream news channels. To their credit, the telecommunication infrastructure is in a state of rapid development. The biggest cable company, Flow, is converting their cable networks to digital and are showing signs of going legit. They have been negotiating broadcasting rights to many of the video feeds and will be charging more for certain channels. And since the two years ago when I last visited there has been a dramatic change to the skyline. The twin island republic has become littered with mobile phone towers.

Residential Cellphone Antennas

This one is less than 200m from where I am now typing this.

Unfortunately, the broadband still sucks bigtime. The bandwidth is low and unreliable and over priced. No doubt this will improve over the next few years and perhaps in the not so distant future the people of Trinidad and Tobago will discover the world that is beyond what is fed to them via American television.

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On Monday, a mainstream US news outlet (NBC) finally calls the war in Iraq a civil war. Of course this has led to a “civil” war of words within the media. Jon Stewart lampooned this debate (John Oliver played devils advocate) on The Daily Show. Meanwhile, The Colbert Report shows that the warmongers tend to be very selective of when analogies between the various wars are deemed appropriate.

PS. YouTube still has the Comedy Central purge in force, but MSNBC doesn’t seem to mind at the moment. Let’s see how long that Olbermann clip lasts. One can still find some persistent Daily Show and Colbert Report clips on the Net if one knows where to look.

I was listening to Today on BBC Radio 4 in the morning and they included an excerpt from last week’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which he interviewed James Baker. The BBC included a snippet of the interview while reporting the leaked recommendations of the Iraqi Study Group which allegedly include a dramatic departure from “stay the course”. What is most curious about this is that a real interview excerpt from a fake news show was deemed suitable for inclusion in a serious BBC programme. One can only conclude that the countless other James Baker interviews by more mainstream media sources didn’t bother to ask the question that Today wanted answered: “Why do they say that? We don’t want voters to know what we’re planning until after the elections, because we don’t want to politicise it. Isn’t that the whole point?”. I read somewhere that more and more Americans are relying on the BBC for international news. Looks like the BBC have to rely on Jon Stewart for American foreign policy news.

It’s business as usual at YouTube despite the Google buy out. Left leaning blogs have been circulating an old press conference clip in which Bush expresses doubts whether North Korea has increased their nuclear arsenal. At least Jon Stewart on The Daily Show has seen the bright side of the North Korean nuclear test – they now have one less nuclear weapon.

(We also see the return of Aasif Mandvi, whose debut Daily Show segment was extremely popular.) Stephen Colbert begins learning Korean while probing for Kim Jong Il’s weaknesses. But avoiding humour altogether, Keith Olbermann shifts blame to Donald Rumsfeld.

Tucked into one corner of a park near where I work is a living monument to freedom of expression – Speaker’s Corner. Just about anyone is allowed to speak about almost any topic, though on my last visit most of the topics seemed to be about religious conversion. The blogosphere seems to fulfill a similar role however it lacks the local concentration and non-verbal communication of the London “attraction”. I’ve now come to realise that YouTube has become the Net equivalent of Speaker’s Corner. The video clip sharing site initially gained popularity among teenagers and young adults and the most popular videos from week to week would reflect this. The most heated debates would typically concern the identity of a mysterious video blogger or whether a magic trick employed video special effects. But as election season in America draws near, I’ve begun noticing more political topics appearing amongst the most viewed clips. Last month, one such heavily viewed example (especially when summing up the duplicate submissions) was the Bill Clinton interview by FoxNews’ Chris Wallace. Curiously, even though FoxNews spun it as Clinton acts crazed, most of the YouTube clips seemed to have been posted by anti-Bush critics. Inevitably, the polarised battleground of American politics descended upon the site’s comment system. The more sophisticated commenters posted video responses, while the less sophisticated posted clips from cable TV that expessed an opinion with which they agreed. One popular source for these prepackaged video opinions is The Daily Show with John Stewart, and Stewart’s comment on the Clinton-FoxNews media focus was particularly insightful in that it suggested a key reason for the growing influence of video blogging in the political arena.

The failure of mainstream media is a common theme on The Daily Show and it is a sad state of affairs when The Comedy Channel seems to do more fact checking than the 24/7 news channels. One exception is Keith Olbermann whose recent Special Comments are rapidly earning him much respect among liberal progressive bloggers and much hatred from the rightwing. As with The Daily Show, clips from Olbermann’s Countdown programme often get posted to YouTube (e.g. K.O.’s take on the Clinton interview and a fact-checking follow-up stemming from it.

Currently, Foleygate is the hot political topic among the video bloggers and as November draws near the politically-related activity on YouTube will only increase. It will be interesting to examine in postmortem whether this will have had any effect on the US Congressional elections. But one thing is certain – the phenomenon is sure to extend far beyond the video blogging community as political broadcasts continue to shift over to the Net.