Amy Schiller

Why Are Women Mostly on the Sidelines for Political Fundraising Battles?

The 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for an unlimited infusion of cash in political campaigns. Forget the quaint $2,500 cap on individual contributions; super PACS have unleashed the war chests of the 1 percent. Right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s $10 million gift to the Romney campaign was just the beginning. Fellow conservative bank-roller Foster Friess admitted on camera that he is working to coordinate his friends: “I’ve reached out to a number of potential donors who [weren’t] involved so much before to help Gov. Romney with his Restore Our Future PAC.”

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The Wal-Mart Thought Police

Wal-Mart, America's largest retailer, prides itself on being a "family-friendly" store, with smiley faces guiding stressed-out breadwinners to a land of low-cost, guilt-free consumption.

Indeed, there are mega Wal-Marts that inhabit spaces the size of five football fields, and the total square footage of all of the Wal-Mart stores nationwide tops 25 million square feet.

As you have probably heard, the "everyday low prices" at these concrete boxes of utopian consumption have tremendous costs for our environment, our workers, our wages, our communities, and the public coffers. But they also come at the expense of free speech and artistic expression, as the corporation targets items that often include progressive criticism of conservative values.

Based in Bentonville, AR, the brand behemoth has become the self-appointed culture police by screening the music, books and magazines that many Americans will be able to access -- in a number of communities, Wal-Mart is the only convenient store in the area stocking culture products.

Take, for example, Wal-Mart's refusal to sell Sheryl Crow's self-titled album in 1996, citing objections to a lyric that criticized Wal-Mart for selling handguns (a practice that the chain has since discontinued), which they felt was "unfair and irresponsible."

Much as Crow probably appreciated the paternalistic advice, as the No. 1 CD retailer in the world (yes, the world) with sales accounting for 10% of total domestic CD sales, a Wal-Mart boycott can result in hundreds of thousands in lost album sales.

The record industry, never too proud to bend over for sales, has started issuing two versions of the same album, one "sanitized." Sometimes this entails altering the cover art, as John Mellencamp was asked to do for his album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, whose cover featured an angel and devil in the background. Nirvana actually changed its song title from "Rape Me" to "Waif Me" for the Wal-Mart version. Both they and the Goo Goo Dolls came under fire for portraying babies in their cover art as well. The cover of the Goo Goo Dolls album titled "A Boy Named Goo" featured a baby covered in blackberry juice; Wal-Mart banned it and only reversed its decision under pressure from the media.

Wal-Mart's official statement on music is as follows: "Wal-Mart will not stock music with parental guidance stickers. While Wal-Mart sets high standards, it would not be possible to eliminate every image, word or topic that an individual might find objectionable. And the goal is not to eliminate the need for parents to review the merchandise their children buy. The policy simply helps eliminate the most objectionable material from Wal-Mart's shelves."

Objectionable material like a book cover with a comedian posing with an American flag and a bald eagle? Actually, yes. The huge bestseller, America: the Book, featuring Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the rest of the Daily Show crew, was banned from Wal-Mart in 2004. Granted, the company objected to the infamous page 99 featuring obviously photoshopped naked pictures of Supreme Court justices (just think, now we can all look at Justice O'Connor's wrinkled, saggy flesh with great nostalgia.)

Stewart is not the only comedian with a book banned by Wal-Mart, though; a shipment of George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops was returned, citing a mistake in ordering the book in the first place. A mistake which probably had nothing to do with Carlin's cover of himself inserted into the Last Supper.

Perhaps there is some legitimacy (however hysterical) to their objections to irreverent images. Yet the political bias inherent in Wal-Mart's criteria became clearer when Wal-Mart's merchandiser for films found Robert Greenwald's acclaimed documentary, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," (produced with the support of the Center for American Progress) inappropriate for Wal-Mart. For no conceivable reason could a documentary involving no gratuitous violence, expletives, or sex be inappropriate, other than its criticism of a conservative political administration.

Pathetically, the rationale for these items is that they "would not appeal to the majority of our customers" or would offend those proverbial family values. Fine, if they know their designated market and have complaints pouring in from their consumers. Except that those two books were both fixtures on the bestseller list for months and Sheryl Crow, Nirvana and the Goo Goo Dolls are top selling entertainers. And those items that are not religiously objectionable demonstrate the degree of hypocrisy within the "family values" standards.

Even something as potentially broadly appealing, positive, and utterly non-offensive as a T-shirt reading "Someday a woman will be president" was pulled from the sales floor because "the message goes against Wal-Mart family values." So old school patriarchy and sexism are Wal-Mart values? Seems a little retrograde and moot in the age of "take your daughter to work day."

Frighteningly and hypocritically, the family-values red flag was absent for the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which describes a vast Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. Booksellers like Amazon.com that do offer it at least include a disclaimer that describes it as a "pernicious fraud," and "one of the most infamous, and tragically influential, examples of racist propaganda ever written."

Wal-Mart's site, in contrast, says "If … The Protocols are genuine (which can never be proven conclusively), it might cause some of us to keep a wary eye on world affairs." Yet another example of the cloak of "family values" serving as a euphemism for a more sinister ideology. (If the book actually featured a cover image of Jews milking children for blood, then would Wal-Mart ban it?)

Furthermore, ever wonder who is buying those oversize drink coasters also known as Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly's perniciously partisan publications? Their publishers readily admit that Wal-Mart's merchandising and promotion basically fueled their bestselling runs.

The crown jewel of Wal-Mart's commercial triumph is the dystopic end-of-days series Left Behind. As reported in the New York Times, Tyndale House, publisher of the Left Behind series, credits Wal-Mart with a pivotal role in turning the evangelical thriller "Armageddon" (No. 11 in the Left Behind series) into the best-selling novel in the country.

As Melani McAllister wrote in The Nation, "these novels work [because] they seamlessly integrate an apocalyptic religious view with a strongly conservative political vision, and locate both in a universe of supernatural action adventure in which good and evil are fully and finally revealed." Left Behind books do not include any actual sex, except for when the faithful rail against abortion and immorality, though they include plenty of violence between good (evangelical warriors complete with fighter planes) and evil (the Antichrist fronting as a smooth-talking UN ambassador.)

Granted, the Left Behind series is hardly comparable to Maxim magazine, but really, it could be considered the equivalent of evangelical porn. Not to beat a dead metaphor, but they're all about self-gratification and ultimate rapture. As many have noted, a lot of purchasers for right-wing screeds probably buy them for the element of fantasy and self-affirmation, particularly those who believe that the war in Iraq and conflict in Israel herald the impending end times.

In all seriousness, the most self-defeating attitude for progressives would be to give an elitist sneer to those who shop at Wal-Mart, shrugging our shoulders not only at Wal-Mart's censorship but at its union busting, sex discrimination, and reprehensibly stingy health plans for already underpaid workers. To Wal-Mart shoppers: There's nothing wrong with wanting religious or G-rated entertainment material in your own home, and wanting to shield children from materials that you find offensive. But it is a problem when the biggest retailer in the country -- a staple for millions of people -- only offers up a sanitized world of culture that is comprised primarily of "Veggie Tales" videos and Toby Keith albums (wonder if they include the "gonna put a boot in your ass" lyric).

Still, this bleak picture seems to be changing, as anti-Wal-Mart groups gain strength and actually win some victories. In early August, Salon.com reported on the increasingly successful anti-Wal-Mart publicity efforts from organizations like Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart. These organizations have been particularly successful in mobilizing union members while making the public aware of the costs of sustaining Wal-Marts, including the millions and millions spent providing public health care assistance to the thousands of Wal-Mart employees who do not receive company health care.

Political change is happening too on the state and local level. Legislative efforts are underway to prevent more Wal-Marts from moving into communities like Inglewood, CA, and to enforce stricter labor laws for those that already do exist. And far from being restricted to perceived "liberal, anti-corporate" enclaves, even conservatives such as the Republican speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives have started to address the financial burden Wal-Mart's health care negligence places on states.

Crucial, and hopefully successful, as these campaigns are, another lesson to take from Wal-Mart's censorship policy is the danger of corporate conglomizoration that stifles free media under the misleading name of radically conservative "family values."

A Super Straight Guy

As one of America's finest voices in fake news reporting, Stephen Colbert's straight guy blue suit, arched eyebrows and deadpan seriousness have become highlights of Comedy Central's The Daily Show where he is the senior correspondent. As cable news increasingly becomes a sad parody of itself, The Daily Show, an actual parody show, remains profoundly funny and totally relevant.

Prior to joining The Daily Show at its birth in 1996, Colbert spent years in the trenches of the sketch comedy world, including a stop at Chicago's famed Second City, where he met Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris. The three of them went on to create the Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy, a really twisted take on the after-school special, starring a former junkie prostitute turned loserish high school student. This fall, a Strangers with Candy feature film will be released.

Meanwhile, Colbert will be starring in his own Comedy Central show called, naturally, The Colbert Report. (Remember, the "t" in the name is silent because, as Colbert himself explains, "It's French, bitch!")

When you were developing your 'super straight guy' look and sound, which actual media personalities did you model yourself after?

COLBERT: First of all, I am a super straight guy. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and I am perfectly comfortable in blue blazers, khaki pants, Brooks Brothers suits and regimental striped ties. It's just genetic. I love a cocktail party with completely vacuous conversation, because I grew up in it.

But in terms of who I channel, my natural inclination was Stone Phillips, who has the greatest neck in journalism. And he's got the most amazingly severe head tilt at the end of tragic statements, like "there were no...survivors." He just tilts his head a bit on that "survivors" as if to say "It's true. It's sad. There were none."

Plus, his name has that sort of Republican porn star vibe to it.

Exactly, if it were Stone Fill-Up then it would really be a porn star name.

And then I also used Geraldo Rivera, because he's got this great sense of mission. He just thinks he's gonna change the world with this report. He's got that early-'70s hip trench coat "busting this thing wide open" look going on. So those two guys. And Peter Mansbridge, obviously.

Naturally.

[Loud crunching sounds.] Wait, wait, I gotta do something for a second. [More loud crunching sounds.]

Are you hiking through the mountains?

Yes, actually, I'm on the side of El Capitan. I'm about to summit, but I just realized there's no one on belay. No, actually, I just had to get out of my car to get a ticket at the parking garage. What were you asking?

You do "This Week in God," which is one of our favorite segments. You're from a South Carolinian religious family and you are a church-goer yourself. Why did you choose to focus so heavily on religion right now?

We used to do "This Week in God" only once a month, but if there was room on the show we could do it every week! It has become acceptable for court decisions to be based on the Gospel. There's so much religion in public life. It's a religious pandemic. It's everywhere. It's not a needle in a haystack. We throw away stories every week. I know we're not a secular state like France which has it in their constitution, but boy I wish our founding fathers had been a little clearer in that First Amendment.

We are living in a pretty absurd time. Are there ever any news incidents that were so absurd you can't make them funny?

Well, obviously real tragedy, like the London bombing, is off limits. No one wants to do comedy about that. But I would say there's almost nothing that can't be mocked on a certain level as long as it doesn't involve loss of life or deep human tragedy. I don't think we ever looked at something and said that's too ridiculous to make more ridiculous. Contrary to what people may say, there's no upper limit to stupidity. We can make everything stupider.

Speaking of stupid, who are some the most unintentionally funny figures in American politics?

You know Rick Santorum? The one who compared being gay to fucking a dog? That's a good one. Who else is good? The entire Supreme Court is pretty funny when they denied medical marijuana when there's a man named William Rehnquist who wrote a dissenting opinion, who's the Chief Justice who happens to be dying of cancer. That must have been a pretty hilarious conversation back in the chambers: "Listen Bill, we know you're dying of cancer but we just can't have you rolling a joint!" That must have been a great conversation.

Clearly, your work on "The Daily Show" requires you to be reading multiple news sources every day. But before this, you were a career comedian who didn't focus on politics. Were you always interested in these issues?

I've always been a news junkie but I never wrote political satire before "The Daily Show."

It seems like some comedians don't want to touch political comedy. Why?

Well, you have to have a passionate opinion; otherwise you sound false. You end up telling the audience jokes they've already heard. The example I think of when I was just starting out was Ted Kennedy drinking jokes. Like, "Ted Kennedy--'nuff said." That's not a joke--that's a flippant cynical dismissal of someone in politics. It inures the audience to feeling or thought so it's not satire. I had no interest in something like that. But at "The Daily Show," Jon asks us to have an opinion, and it turned out I had one.

What about your new show? Can we get a preview?

I'm really excited about more me. I think 30 minutes of me is really what America wants. I think they've been longing for it and I'm so glad we could finally give it to them. For long enough, they've suffered in silence.

What percentage of your student viewers are stoned when they watch "The Daily Show"? Bill O'Reilly seemed to think your viewership contained quite a large number of stoned slackers.

I'd say...ahhh...This is on a scale of 1-100, right? I think the percentage is based on whatever channel it is on in the cable market, like in New York, we're channel 49, so 49% of people are high while watching. In South Carolina, where I'm from, we are on a channel in the low 70s, so around 70% of people are stoned.

There've been all these reports about young people who rely on the "The Daily Show" as a primary news source. When you heard that, were you like "what the hell?" Do you feel responsibility?

No responsibility. I just feel sorry for the people who only get their news from us because they're missing half the joke. Yes, we do a joke on what the news is, but the other half is on how the news is reported. So, if they watch the nightly news or cable news program, they'll enjoy our show more.

I do want to see a statistic or comparison of people who before "The Daily Show" they didn't get their news from anywhere but us. That would be significant but I've never seen anyone bring those numbers.

The "Indecision 2004" DVD came out recently. It was great stuff. During that coverage, what was your moment of greatest comedic joy or of deepest despair?

The moment of greatest comedic joy was when I did a piece on how diverse the Democratic party is at the DNC. I found--these are the terms I used--a gay guy, a tree hugger, a Jew, a black guy, a lesbian, an Indian, a hippie and I just assembled them and talked about the issues in the way the press does, in the most rudimentary and reductive way. It showed how the Democratic party was a hodgepodge of people who have a hard time agreeing because they all have different agendas.

And the piece went well, but the highlight was that the night it was on the show, Bill Clinton was the guest and Clinton came back and found me. He said "That was hilay-rious! How'd you find those people?" Here is the master of coalitions and he wanted to know how I found all those people for this false coalition panel. We talked a while about what is funny and hard about getting Democrats to talk to each other. It was a real joy for me to talk with the president about it.

And the low point was the Republican National Convention, just because I couldn't get people to talk to me. It was like banging my head against a brick wall.

Was that because they suspected you?

Well, they have huge contempt for reporters in general, whether they knew who I was or not. I had to compliment a woman on her blouse to get her to talk to me--and that woman turned out to be friend of mine's sister.

Also, they were really focused, I think, even if they didn't know my deal, they were focused on the stage or the podium. There wasn't a lot of downtime at the Republican National Convention--the Democrats are a little more freewheeling. So you couldn't catch people between events, because they were such good soldiers. They were so excited to see Rudy Giuliani and then so excited to see George Pataki and then, so excited for, I don't know, Gerald McRaney, formerly of TV's "Major Dad."

So Republicans pay attention while the Democrats are smoking cigarettes under the bleachers.

Well, we hope it's cigarettes.

How do you keep finding people to interview on "The Daily Show" who either don't know the interview is satirical or are willing to play along?

Everyone knows what the show is at this point, but they don't understand where we're going with the conversation. I talk to them for hours and you're seeing the three to four questions that are important to my segment. They don't necessarily perceive a three-minute edit out of a three-hour conversation. I don't make a big deal out of being funny, and then we do our best to bring 'em back alive in editing.

Some critics have accused "The Daily Show" of being overly liberal though you have a mix of Democrat and Republican guests, and liberals are the butt of jokes sometimes. How do you respond to the critique?

Um, we are liberal, but Jon's very respectful of the Republican guests, and, listen, if liberals were in power it would be easier to attack them, but Republicans have the executive, legislative and judicial branches, so making fun of Democrats is like kicking a child, so it's just not worth it.

When's the "Strangers With Candy" movie coming out?

October 21 is when the movie comes out.

That is so exciting; we can't tell you how much we miss that show.

And the Colbert Report starts that Monday, October the 17th.

So you have a banner week!

It's going to be Oct-olbert, I've decided. That's an exclusive, haven't used that line with anyone else.

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