Elana Berkowitz

Five Minutes with Helen Thomas

[This interview appeared originally on Campus Progress.]

Helen Thomas has been an iconic face in the White House press room for decades. She covered an unprecedented nine presidential administrations while gaining a reputation as a thoughtful, tough reporter. While working for United Press International for 57 years, Thomas took on the boys' club of political journalism, becoming the only female print journalist to travel with President Nixon to China and the first woman to hold posts in the White House Correspondents' Association and the National Press Club. Though Thomas proudly sat in the front row of the press room for decades, she was moved to the back in 2003 by a Bush Administration that she frequently peppered with critical and challenging questions, and has been called on less and less frequently because, she speculates, "they didn't like me … I ask too mean questions." She is now a regular columnist for Hearst.

Campus Progress sat down recently with the "first lady of the press" over a cup of very black coffee to talk about women journalists, comparing wars, and undying curiosity.

Campus Progress: Do you have any advice for young journalists?

Helen Thomas: Oh, go for it! It's the greatest profession in the world. And you should view it as public service--when you are informing the American people, you are doing the greatest thing because you cannot have a democracy without an informed people. It is an education every day. I only feel sorry for those who had to leave it to put the kids through college. But I think once you get hooked on being in journalism you will never, never, ever feel the same way. I've seen so many reporters look back in longing for the days when they were starving to death, working 14, 15 hours a day, going to offices where they walk up four flights of rickety steps, and they loved every minute. I just think it takes great dedication. And the pay is too low, the hours are too long--but you never leave when the story's breaking, and stories never break on your time.

CP: In the last couple of years, aspiring journalists have seen many professional journalists censoring themselves and avoiding asking the tough questions.

HT: I think that there's a real deterioration in journalism. Unfortunately, everybody with a laptop thinks they're a journalist today. They don't have any professionalism, they don't have any standards, and we have been infiltrated by that. Plus there is the corporatization of all the media companies. It's a tragedy to have one-newspaper towns with no competition, and having the media broadcast outlets think that entertainment is more important than the issues. So I think that the profession is changing radically, and it has not commended itself very well in the last year in terms of plagiarism, fabrication and so forth. So I think they have to do a lot of soul-searching, but I'd say that the preponderance of reporters are very dedicated to the values and standards of accuracy and honesty and credibility. One thing about this profession: you do not last long if you make a big mistake, because our report cards are on the front page every day.

CP: You covered the White House for a very long time--which presidents and presidential press secretaries do you think were the most honest and forthcoming?

HT: Which president? None. Some press secretaries really tried to wear two hats--you have to be a schizophrenic. On one hand, you're speaking for the President of the United States, for the whole federal government, for the American people and on it goes. That's one hat. The other hat is to speak to the reporters who are but a transmission belt to the American people. I think much depends on how much a president wants the American people to know. This Bush administration is the most secretive I have ever covered, and I think the most secretive in American history since the time presidents have been covered.

All presidents think that most information involving government and the White House belongs to them, to their domain, and I think it belongs in the public. I don't think they should have these secrets--I think it's unconscionable the hold they have. I mean, I didn't know the Brits ran any ports until this started! And it's all decided by a secret committee that decides whether we sell our ports? This is a shock to me, and I think I'm so dumb to have not known that. But why didn't I know it? Because it's not been on the public record at all.

Well, back to the thing: I think that the greatest press secretary was Jerald terHorst. He served for one month with President Ford. He had been a newspaper man in this town, for Detroit news, for 29 years--he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was a man of trust.

He was appointed press secretary by President Ford who was a sudden president, and he was saying "the long national nightmare is over," Nixon resigned. While Jerry was serving, he got a call from a couple of newspaper colleagues and friends on a Friday and they told him that there were rumors that President Ford sent emissaries to San Clemente and that they were working on negotiating a pardon for Nixon. He went to the counsel of the White House, who is the chief lawyer, and he was told that was not true. Jerry came back and told the reporters no, nothing to it. Then on Saturday, I think, he got the word from Ford that he was going to pardon President Nixon and he was so devastated.

I think that Jerry terHorst was a man of great integrity, tremendous integrity. All press secretaries are placed in dilemmas like that- except for these press secretaries now, they are robots! They all promise never to lie but they shade the truth all over the place, they dance around because the president didn't want them to tell anything.

CP: When you were just starting out, what was the position of female journalists and how has that evolved?

HT: Well, I was very lucky--I had parents who couldn't read or write, but they wanted everyone to be in education. And the one thing they never told me was that it was a man's world. So everyone in our family--nine kids--we all chose what we wanted to be on the assumption you're in America, right? And you can do anything you want.

In high school, I was a sophomore and I saw something that I had written in English class in the paper, and I was hooked for life. I had a byline, my ego swelled--I said, "This is it!" I mean, who needs anything else?

When I started out, there was kind of an automatic reflex to assign a woman who comes knocking on the door of the newspaper--if there's any slot it would be on the woman's pages, which is ok because there's lots of news in that field. But it was the tail end of World War II, and they were drafting every young man who had a pulse. If he was breathing, he was going to war, and that left a lot of slots in the hard news offices for help. So women suddenly became the thing to hire.

But after the war, it was a real shocker to me. We had about nine women fired from our office. I was hiding under a table, knowing this. But they wouldn't have wanted me; I was going to work at 5:30 in the morning and I was simply a gofer, really. The presumption was that these male reporters, young men, 21 years old, 22 years old who had usually been in college, would want to come back to these jobs for $24 a week. They came back as colonels, captains, commanders and so forth. And they looked at those girls and said "Hell no!"

I hate to think that World War II helped me get started--I mean that's the tragedy. That was true in medicine, law, all these professions--women had a tough, tough time. Still--they're not there yet. They should never give up the battle for equality.

CP: So, what was your most outrageous experience as a young female reporter?

HT: Outrageous? Every day! Outrageous.

Well, the Press Club we couldn't go--you had to be escorted by a man if you were going to get a cocktail or dinner or something. That was shocking. Even though we were on beats with men, toe-to-toe in competition, they did not take us in until 1971. And it was because the Club was down on its uppers, financially, and needed our money, needed our dues.

In 1959, I was President of the Women's National Press Club. All the press clubs at that time cabled Moscow because it was the start of the co-existence era and Eisenhower had invited Nikita Khrushchev to come. Well, it was a tremendous story, because we were going to talk to the Russians. We newspaper women were determined not to be left out on that. And as it happened, whenever there was a foreign visitor up to that time, the State Department would automatically put them at the National Press Club for a luncheon for their one appearance for the press in Washington. Well, we knew that was going to happen and we started screaming. We made so much noise that they arranged that thirty women reporters, for the first time in history were allowed to sit on the floor of the National Press Club.

CP: Obviously you have a reputation for standing up to power and asking tough questions in the press room. Can you identify a particularly difficult moment where you felt like backing down?

HT: I, back down? No way!

I view the press conference as absolutely indispensable for a democracy. There is no other institution in our society, no other forum where a president can be questioned. If he's not questioned--and it could be a "she" someday-- he could be a king or dictator! There's no accountability at all. Sure, Congress can subpoena them, but they're not going to do that unless it's dire. So I think that if you have a chance to ask a question of a president, you shouldn't blow it--you should really nail him in some way.

I think that press conferences are extremely important, and this president holds the fewest. But it's the reporters' fault because they don't clamor. Something has happened to the press.

CP: What do you think has happened?

HT: Starting after 9/11, they rolled over and played dead--they were so afraid of being called unpatriotic and un-American and they thought the American people were watching on television. They lost their guts and they did a lousy job. It was so clear, for two years, that President Bush wanted to go to war. Every day on the podium in the press room, we heard Ari Fleischer and then Scott McClellan say in one breath, "9/11--Saddam Hussein--9/11--Saddam Hussein--9/11--." So later on when they said, no, Saddam Hussein had no links with them it was a little late in the game.

CP: Can you compare the media coverage of the march to war in Iraq and the subsequent events there to other wars that have occurred during your time in the press room?

HT: This one is totally controlled. I think that embedding reporters was good to save lives but they certainly have not done the story. You never really saw the war. You didn't see the invasion of Baghdad really. You didn't see the bombs. You didn't see the victims or anything else. I've asked all the people on the networks--"Oh," they said, "that was too gruesome, we couldn't do that." Well, that's war. The Pentagon and the White House had total control of the news. In Vietnam, a reporter could hop on a helicopter, get some help from the military and go anywhere they wanted--they wrote the story and they also wrote how futile it was becoming. And now we have a system where the Pentagon is planting favorable stories in Iraq and, well, God knows where else.

CP: You think that might be happening in the American media as well?

HT: I think every time Rumsfeld briefs, it's baloney! Here's a man who signed off on torture, and then when he finally saw the photographs, he had a little bit of conscience… We've killed people in torture. That's not us--is it? Where is the outrage?

I can say all of this because I'm a columnist now. Before, I never bowed out of the human race. I permitted myself to think, to care, to believe--but I didn't permit myself the luxury of having it in my copy. I wrote the dullest copy--he said, she said, he added, blah blah. I was afraid of a verb that might convey my feeling--but everybody knew I had a megaphone otherwise, with my friends and so forth!

CP: Now that you are working on your column, is there anything you miss about reporting?

HT: I honestly believe that the wire services do the best job of informing the American people. I don't think my opinion is worth two cents, really, but I do think information is so important--and straight information, unbiased as humanly possible.

CP: There has been a huge change in the last 20 years with the rise of the right-wing shadow media. Even before the internet and before Fox News, which has become huge, you had the New York Post, the Washington Times--all these newspapers that are basically doing right-wing opinion journalism.

HT: I think it's terrible, really, that they have dominated now. I mean, they're not giving you news. They're baiting people. Practically every liberal commentator has been wiped out--I mean Moyers, Donahue, you can name them. It's a tragedy in my opinion, and I think that part of it the blame is the media or corporations who really think they can make a lot of money with people screaming at each other. The right wing has dominated … and of course the middle ground Republicans don't have a say any more.

CP: So what news outlets do you rely on? Do you use the internet much?

HT: Well, I read my email with trepidation--"you're ugly, you're awful, you should retire"--and I write back "You must be living a dull life if you insist on living mine!" And on it goes. Every day I go to the Starbucks near the White House and read the Washington Post, New York Times. That's indispensable, I think. That's your homework. And then when I walk into the office I turn on CNN and keep it on. I think they've lost a lot of ground. They were magnificent when they started, but trying to emulate Fox is a joke. So I hope they'll get back their high standards.

Why do you have to be a beautiful blond woman to be in journalism? But I admit when I go on television I say, "do you have a makeup artist? Please, take half these chins away!"

CP: What do you want to be remembered for?

HT: As a fair reporter. It's very simple: I can say that off the top of my head. I love reporting. I think I'm the luckiest woman in the world to have picked a profession where even when I am dead tired and not wanting to get up in the morning, I'm still very excited and I have undying curiosity. I don't want to miss anything while I'm around.

Burying College Grads in Debt

Congratulations, parents of the Class of 2009! As you read this, your child is settling into the routines of college life: ill-timed early morning lectures, inevitable all-night cram sessions, and the search for parties on a now fairly familiar campus.

While the pleasures of college life remain the same, the economic security that a degree used to guarantee has disappeared. This fall, the Class of 2009 joins the ranks of an emerging debtor class composed of educated young adults.

The average student borrower now graduates with $27,600 of debt, almost three and a half times what it was a decade ago. 84 percent of black students and 66 percent of Latino students graduate with debt. And 39 percent of all student borrowers graduate with unmanageable levels of debt, according to the Department of Education.

After graduation, young people confront unaffordable rents in markets like San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago or New York, where the majority of young adults pay between 30 and 50 percent of their income to rent.

And what income? Between 2000 and 2003, wages for college educated men and women between 23 and 29 years of age were down 3.5 percent and 1.2 percent respectively. In this flat, stagnant job market, most new opportunities are in jobs like burger flipping and jeans folding. Manpower, a temp agency, is the biggest private employer in the country. Many jobs in more desirable and competitive industries have salaries starting in the low $20,000s that offer little by way of benefits or healthcare.

Add to that young people's average credit card debt of over $4,000. Set aside your stereotypes of irresponsible youth: Over 70 percent of undergraduates use credit cards to buy school supplies, food and textbooks. 24 percent use their credit cards for tuition. Credit card companies are becoming the high-interest student loan industry of last resort. When it's all totaled up, young people spend 25 percent of every dollar earned on paying off debts and loans.

Federal policy isn't keeping pace with reality. Soaring education costs and inflation have not been met with aid increases. Caps on federal student loans have forced students to seek private loans, which were up from $1.1 billion in 1995-96 to $10.6 billion in 2003-04.These loans have much higher, often predatory, interest rates.

Today, the average Pell Grant covers only 40 percent of college tuition, compared to 77 percent 25 years ago. And under President Bush, the Department of Education revised Pell Grant eligibility guidelines, effectively excluding almost 100,000 young people from the program and reducing grant money for another 1.2 million.

This month, the U.S. Congress poured salt in the wounds: The Senate recommended slashing $14 billion in student aid programs as part of the budget reconciliation process. The House of Representatives proposed nearly $9 billion in similar cuts, forcing the average student borrower to pay an additional $5,800 in already unaffordable debt. Despite some unusual Republican dissent in the ranks, late last night, the budget bill passed by a razor thin margin. The final bill included $50 billion in cuts including $14.3 billion in cuts to federal higher education funding — the largest cuts to federal student loans in American history. (Though the reconciliation bill received much negative response from Democrats and even a few Republicans, very few people spoke out against the education cuts, focusing instead on issues like Medicare and food stamps.) Eighteen-year-olds now must borrow tens of thousands of dollars to invest in themselves — because their country will not invest in them.

Moreover, federal tax policy isn't exactly working in the favor of young people making low wages. We can't ask our buddies in the White House to just write off our student loan payments. We pay taxes on each and every dollar that we make in wages, tips, and salaries. We don't have stock portfolios, houses, and other assets to re-structure our tax liability. We bear the full brunt of life without loopholes — but forget fairness: struggling to limit the size of a hurricane-wrecked federal budget, Congress has made it clear that they are prepared to treat us a good deal worse than they already have — before they dare close the loopholes, shut down the giveaways, and trim the no-bid contracts for the well-connected and well-off.

Parents: remember that youthful knot in your stomach as you looked at the world after graduation and wondered about your place in it? We do that too. Only we look at the world as twenty-somethings sandbagged with the kind of debt that, until recently, would have taken decades to accrue. Recent surveys by the Cambridge Consumer Index and the Education Department confirm that student borrowers are deferring major life decisions like the purchase of a first home or marriage.

Energetic young college grads could soon invest in start-ups, emerging markets and new technologies if we entered adulthood burdened only by our high expectations and ideals. Educational debt hobbles the very group of risk-takers and innovators that has historically rejuvenated the American economy when, like now, it starts to flag. Love us, hate us, tolerate us — young people are your future. Fail to invest in us at your own peril. Thirty years from now we won't be able to take care of our parents if we're still living in a converted closet in a group house.

So here's our counter-offer: We need common sense policies that relieve the debt burden on students and recent graduates. Parents of students and recent graduates: tell them not to cut one dime of student aid. Tell them you'll remember how they voted and promise to hold them accountable. We'll do the heavy lifting, but we need you to let Washington to know that you're watching and that you care about the issue.

Work with us now to affect change, and we promise we'll never have to trade you into the traveling circus for a week's worth of Ramen noodles or sell you on eBay to cover the rent.

Sports and Resistance in the USA

In 1960, at the tender age of 18, Cassius Clay tossed his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. He had just been denied service at a restaurant in Louisville when he tried to order a hamburger only weeks after winning boxing gold in Athens.

The rest of the story has become a classic, as Clay, now Muhammad Ali, goes on to win 56 of 61 fights with 37 knockouts and, along the way, becomes an iconic political figure that defined an era of racial struggle.

Now, in a time of sometimes crass hyper-commercialization, we've found a sports writer unwilling to ignore the issues of race and class that have always been inextricably tied up with sports. Dave Zirin, author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States," is a sports fan with a political conscience who won't let us forget the intersections between his twin passions as he explores sports unions, anti-war athletes, the controversially-named Redskins, Jackie Robinson and desegregation with wit and an inexhaustible stockpile of knowledge.

Dave sat down with Campus Progress to talk about the Canadian progressive politics of NBA star Steve Nash, building stadiums on the public dime, athletes becoming "thingified" and being a fan.

You've described the NCAA as a "sweatshop for indentured servitude." Why are you so concerned about college athletes getting paid?

I know it's so controversial right now - "oh you can't pay college athletes, you'd ruin their amateur status" and all the rest of it. Fifty years ago all college athletes received a stipend, so this is not some kind of new radical idea. I went to a Division III college and I had a good friend who was up at the crack of dawn every day and would come home every day and collapse in a heap just to be on a Division III swim team. If you're good enough to play a college sport you're contributing to the life and culture of that particular campus and therefore deserve to be treated like anyone who's doing any kind of work study, and should get some kind of a stipend. When it comes to revenue-producing sports like baseball, basketball, football -- where the college actively profits off of what you do -- I think you're entitled to a piece of that. Anything other than that is, frankly, rank extortion of the worst sort.

By not paying college athletes, do you feel there are certain portions of the population that are disproportionately affected?

Absolutely, without question. Working class African-Americans, Latinos, and communities of color disproportionately make up the ranks of these teams. If you look at any school, the percentages in terms of racial diversity of the sports team versus the campus as a whole are stacked in opposite directions. Growing up in NYC in the '80s, I thought that Georgetown University was a predominantly black college from watching basketball because their coach was African-American and almost the whole team was African-American. When I found out what Georgetown actually was my jaw hit the floor.

Still, on a lot of big sports school campuses, athletes get other perks thrown their way, particularly when they are being recruited. Over the last few years we've seen a number of news stories about athletes being recruited and treated like kings, plied with promises of easy academics, sexual bait and so on.

I think that's a very important thing you're raising. That is a reality today. The competition and profits for big-time college sports is so intense and the athletes can't be paid for it. Colleges can't compete with each other by paying the players, so it's all under-the-table stuff -- payments, women, drugs, whatever. It's sort of a moral sewer. I'm not trying to talk like Pat Robertson here, but when I hear that the University of Colorado had a special slush fund that involved escort services and a liquor store I just think, "That's disgusting. Why does something like that exist?" The answer is because there can't be an honest and fair exchange of labor.

How would you respond to those who point out that college athletes are being paid to some extent with free ride athletic scholarships?

I would remind you that people said in slave days: "they're getting room and shelter." It's completely apples and oranges. Yeah, they're contributing to the economic wellbeing of the school. But they are revenue producers for the school of the first order, and many of them are doing a hell of a lot more to fill the coffers of the school than a typical tenured professor, for example.

What about shoe contracts for basketball coaches? In the Final Four it's a billion dollar industry. The players can't choose what basketball shoes they wear. When I was in school, choosing your kicks was a personal thing. But college athletes can't choose because the coach has a contract with Nike, Adidas, or Reebok. The pay is usually mid-six figures for a big time school. You're running up and down the court wearing an advertisement and you don't see a dime of it.

You're a big proponent of Title IX legislation. How have you seen Title IX benefit female students? Are you happy with the progress that has been made?

I am disappointed in the way Title IX played itself out in the same way I'm disappointed in the lack of access women have in this country to abortion clinics, for example. If Title IX is overturned just as if Roe v. Wade was overturned, it would be such a hellacious defeat for women and women's rights. People need to recognize that Title IX is something we need to be actively defending right now. It is something George W. Bush is for overturning, something John Roberts is for overturning as well.

And it's important that people realize what an incredibly positive effect Title IX has had for millions of women in this country. One out of every three women in middle school, junior high, or high school plays some form of sport. Before Title IX was passed, that number was one out of 35. Girls that play sports, study after study shows, are less likely to have eating disorders, less likely to be in abusive relationships, less likely to have serious problems with drugs and alcohol in their high school years.

In your book you talk about the possibility about building a "movement of sports fans." What would that look like?

Sports can be deeply political when used as a way to set priorities for urban municipalities, set budget priorities. It's used as a way to recruit for the military, and to sell the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's used for the way it portrays women, and gays and lesbians; it's a very political medium. Fans need to argue for things that we believe in. One of those things is arguing against the public funding of stadiums. Over the last ten years $119 billion has been spent on the building and upkeep of taxpayer-funded stadiums in this country. Or when talented African-Americans and people of color who are assistant coaches are passed over for coaching jobs, we can raise that, especially when you look at the not-so-talented white coaches getting recycled through the league.

Speaking of selling the war, in your book you write about a particular SportsCenter broadcast from Kuwait that got you riled up.

SportsCenter made a set that looked like a bunker with sandbags and all that shit and broadcast from Kuwait. They also did that on the anniversary of September 11th, which is kind of disgusting. They're doing what Bush and Cheney couldn't do and that's create a concrete connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Unless you're going to do a week of SportsCenter in the middle of an anti-war demonstration it's complete and utter propagandistic horseshit. They even did special reports like "look how quickly an ice cream cone melts in the Iraqi desert!" Well what the hell is that? An ice cream cone will melt hella fast in Arizona! Why do that in Iraq if not just to show the "savage terrain" that our boys are living in, like some kind of White Man's Burden thing. It shows how Bush has sold this war: this is a failed state, people can't rule themselves, and so on.

What about now? Support for Bush and the war has never been lower. Has that been reflected in sports at all?

This year, as opinion has shifted against the war, you had a very interesting development with what musical talent was invited to perform. Before the start of the NFL season this year, the Rolling Stones played the kickoff concert. And they had just put out a pretty hardcore anti-war song. I think in years past, the NFL would have bumped them, immediately. I mean for goodness sakes, they even had Kanye West perform. I think that shows that the NFL is in the business first and foremost of making money. It may have been good business to highlight more pro-war artists like Toby Keith and Clint Black a year ago, but this year it doesn't mean jack shit. This year it's not going to sell.

You take strong issue with the common left argument that popular sports is pure escapism or the circus part of "bread and circuses," distracting Americans from the issues that actually confront them. Could you single out a few sports moments that you think are particularly politically significant?

Well, there are tons of moments, but there are a few that create the arc of the book. Jackie Robinson and the Civil Rights Movement, Muhammad Ali and the Black freedom struggle, Billie Jean King and the women's rights movement, and Martina Navritolova and the birth of a modern gay rights movement in this country. I think each of those four cases is a case where the athletes themselves are almost inextricable from thinking about the struggle itself. There's an effort in this country to perpetually take struggles and develop a collective amnesia about them and forget that these fights ever really occurred. With sports heroes like these involved, it becomes part of the pop cultural firmament which makes it much tougher to erase.

All of these are powerful examples, but they are not particularly recent. Can you think of any more recent successful examples of the intersection of sports and politics?

There's some very powerful examples - the problem is the absence of a mass movement like there existed in the 1960s. Without that, the words of athletes who choose to step down from their pedestal and be rebels is much less amplified. They get swallowed up much more quickly in the absence of masses of people who are there to hear it. That being said, I think the work of some people like Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards who just spoke at the big anti-war protest or Carlos Delgado from Major League baseball who doesn't stand up for the National Anthem and does all kinds of work for Puerto Rican rights and Vieques… these are important examples.

What teams do you root for?

In basketball, I'm a pretty shameless homer so I root for the Washington Wizards because I live here. And I also like the Phoenix Suns because of Steve Nash [this year's NBA MVP] because he's taken action against the war. I actually do that. If there are players who are political and have progressive politics, I find it much more fun to root for them and much more interesting. It's like the people who rooted for Ali in the '60s and may have hated boxing otherwise. When Stephen Nash throws a brilliant pass, I'm like "yeah, there are those social democratic Canadian principles at work!" You can't help but do that. I think we're just better off in the most general sense when we see athletes for their minds as much as their bodies. I think there's a deeply de-humanizing process that's part of the tradeoff for the countless joys, perks, and money from being a pro athlete in this country. You become, as Martin Luther King said, "thingified."

Do you root for baseball?

I do, but it's a little tough because as I said I'm a shameless homer, and the new team is the Washington Nationals, but I fought really hard to keep the stadium from being built on the public dime. It's a $600 million project and my wife teaches in DC public schools and I know what the resources look like for schools. It's sort of hard for me to root for them without seeing the political ramifications of getting a team in this city. I was born and raised in New York City and was raised a Mets fan so that's where my sympathies generally lie.

So for students interested in both sports and politics, where would you tell them to get started with getting engaged?

One, find out if the apparel in the school store is made by ten-year-old girls in Southeast Asia or Latin America for 50 cents an hour, and then challenge your school, which most assuredly has liberal intentions, and establish a code of conduct. Fight against sweatshops. The second thing is to start raising the issue of stipends for athletes on campus, whether they're men or women, play water polo or basketball. People who build the general community of their school should be rewarded for that because the time they put in is absolutely brutal and should be recognized.

The Shame of the Nation

Jonathan Kozol isn't subtle. He is angry. A veteran of 40 years spent on the frontlines of education reform, his new book is titled Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.

The book, told primarily through the voices of teachers and students, vividly exposes the ways that the American educational system has betrayed lower-income inner-city children. Kozol describes schools that are separated by a 15-minute drive but that offer educational opportunities that are light years apart - primarily white schools that offer drama club and AP classes and primarily black schools that require classes like hairdressing.

One teacher at a South Bronx elementary school who Kozol spoke with pointed to one of her students and said that after 18 years of teaching, the child was "the first white student I have ever taught." Kozol, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar, author of books including Savage Inequalities and former public school teacher, talked about race, education, and Shame of the Nation.

How do we activate liberally minded young people who may graduate with a lot of debt and who are wavering between Teach for America and a lucrative career at Goldman-Sachs? What do you say to those students?

First of all, I think there's a myth most college students are selfishly inclined to earning money quickly or so determined to make their way in the corporate world that they don't have any time or inclination to go out and do the decent things that are needed to change the world. In fact, I find thousands of college students, tens of thousands, wherever I go, packing the auditoriums wherever I speak, and then typically 200 of them will keep me up for another two hours asking me exactly where they're needed. They are not willing to suppress their sense of justice or postpone their activism until some later time in life until after they've established a lucrative career. They want to do it now and they're right to have that feeling because if they postpone the moment of ethical action for another five years, the likelihood is that they'll never return to it. Once they go on to law school or whatever career it may be, they almost never return to that state of mind where they're willing to take risks for the cause of justice.

Secondly, a lot of young people are frightened by their parents or by the older generation because older people will say to them, "Hey, you might ruin your careers if you do something decent first," or "you might never be able to pay off your college debt." Typically for young teachers out of college, I know thousands of young people who go right into public school as soon as they're certified to teach. Virtually all of them want to protest the conditions that they see within but some of them are scared; again their parents say, "don't take a chance on speaking out; you might lose your job."

What I tell these young people is, the world is not as dangerous as the older generation would like you to believe. Anyone I know who has ever taken a risk and lost a job has ended up getting a better one two years later. The ones I pity are the ones who never stick out their neck for something they believe, never know the taste of moral struggle, and never have the thrill of victory.

And what do you say to those who aren't interested in getting involved or who feel like this is a problem outside of themselves?

Some young people will tentatively say to me, "well maybe I oughtta get involved." Well I say, "You don't have any choice; you're involved already. Even if you never do anything about this, you've benefited from an unjust system. You're already the winner in a game that was rigged to your advantage from the start. If we did not have an apartheid school system in America, what is the chance you'd walk into this college so easily? It would have been a lot harder because there would have been a far larger applicant pool of highly capable minority kids to compete with you.

In a sense, those of us - and I've had a privileged education, too - those of us who have those benefits have to live with the uncomfortable knowledge that all our victories in life will be contaminated by the fact that we were winners in a game that was never played on a level playing field.

Your new book focuses on what you call apartheid in the American educational system. A lot of people think of apartheid as a term referring to a moment now relegated to political history. How do you see it happening here and now?

I think a lot of people don't have any idea of how deeply segregated our schools have become all over again. Most textbooks are not honest in what they teach our high school students. An awful lot of people come to college with this strange idea that there's no longer segregation in America's schools, that our schools are basically equal; neither of these things is true. Segregation has returned to public education with a vengeance. During the decades after Brown v. Board of Education there was terrific progress. Tens of thousands of public schools were integrated racially. During that time the gap between black and white achievement narrowed. But since 1990 when the Rehnquist court started ripping apart the legacy of Brown, the court has taken the teeth out of Brown. During these years our schools have rapidly segregated and the gap in skills between minorities and whites has increased again. I just visited 60 public schools in 11 different states; if you took a photo of the classes I'm visiting, they would look exactly like a photograph of a school in Mississippi 50 years ago.

You mention that one of the most segregated school systems is in New York and you particularly single out Martin Luther King High School, which I grew up near. It was located in a primarily white neighborhood with almost no white students.

There's the greatest irony of all: If you want to see the most segregated school in America today, ask to see the school named after Martin Luther King. Or Rosa Parks, or Thurgood Marshall. New York City has a school named for Jackie Robinson. Is this an integrated school that represents the ideals for which Jackie Robinson is honored? Of course not. It's a 96 percent black and Hispanic school. There's a school in New York named for Langston Hughes that's 99 percent black and Hispanic. The principal of Martin Luther King High School even said to me, "Honestly, here we are at Lincoln Center in New York in a school that's named for Martin Luther King and I have to hunt around the building to find my eight white students."

Young people in college need to make up their minds whether they want to live in a nation that lives up to the dream of Dr. King or whether they want to live in a divided nation. And if we agree to trample on the dream of Dr. King then I don't think we have the right to celebrate his birthday every year; it's hypocrisy.

But the problem you care about isn't just that schools are racially segregated but that they don't offer the same quality of education.

The words of Brown v. Board of Education were clear: Even if segregated schools could ever be made equal in physical facilities, faculty, etc., as schools attended by white children, they would still be destructive to the souls of segregated children by the very fact of segregation in itself. We have placed them in isolation because we don't want you to contaminate our own schools. It sends a destructive message for young blacks, and they recognize it very well. One teenager in Harlem said to me, "It's like if they don't have room for something and don't know how to throw it out they put it back in the garage." I said, "Is that how you feel?" She said, "That's exactly how I feel."

And these schools are not simply segregated; they're wildly unequal. Nationally, overwhelmingly non-white schools receive $1,000 less per pupil than overwhelmingly white schools. In NYC, to give a dramatic example, there are kids in the South Bronx who get about $11,000 a year towards their education while right next door in the white suburb of Bronxville, they get $19,000. Kids that I write about are treated by America as if they were worth half as much as children in the white suburbs.

I often hear privileged white people say, "Well, that doesn't sound quite fair, but can you really buy your way to a better education for poor kids?" Typically people who ask that question send their kids to Andover and Exeter. And still, the parents who spend $30,000 a year to guarantee their child a royal road into the Ivy League have the nerve to look me in the eyes and ask me about buying your way into a better education.

And the segregated schools that you write about really seem to be failing their students by not preparing them for college and higher education in some pretty shocking ways.

While writing this book, I met a student in L.A. named Mariah, at a school with 5,000 people in it, who was forced to take sewing classes the previous year even though she wanted to go to college. This year they told her she had to take hairdressing. I said, "What would you rather take?" and she said she wanted to take an AP course in English; then she started to cry. "I already know how to sew; my mother works in a sewing factory. I want to go to college; I don't need to know how to sew to go to college. I hope for something more." I call it the cognitive decapitation of inner-city children. We're locking them out of the competition for empowerment from the very beginning.

In some schools it starts even earlier. In the book, I write about children in first grade who were taught to read by reading want ads. They learned to write by writing job applications. Imagine what would happen if anyone tried to do that to children in a predominantly white suburban school. The parents would fire the principal overnight. We tolerate this for children of color because we don't genuinely value their intelligence. I've heard business leaders say, "We need these inner city children to be trained to be our entry-level workers." They would never use the word "train" when they speak of their own children - they want their own children to be educated, to run the corporation someday, or to be doctors or lawyers or preachers or teachers or musicians or whatever else they choose to do in life.

It seems like part of what the press loves is reporting these stories of individuals who "beat the odds."

I call those the "hero children." There's always that handful of children who are given special favors by rich people who happen to meet them, and the press loves to report how successful these kids are. But all that is the consequence of random acts of charity. Charity is not a substitute for systematic justice.

Katrina for a lot of people seemed to lay bare a lot of realities about race and class in America, but I'm guessing for you a lot of the things we all saw weren't surprising to some extent.

It's simply the most recent, most dramatic example of how easy it is to ignore the humanity of people when we live in a segregated society. The primary victims of Katrina, those who were given the least help by the government, those rescued last or not at all, were overwhelmingly people of color largely hidden from the mainstream of society. It's easier to be brutal to people when you lock them out of sight. When you don't know them. It is a perfectly dramatic example of what happens every day in our nation's public schools, but the destruction is not as sudden nor as dramatic, but no less brutal, because it goes on every single day of the year.

What about solutions? Are there successes that you can point to?

We haven't even lived up to the promises of Plessey v. Ferguson. American schools today are separate and no one would even pretend they're equal. Every expert has a new plan for creating successful segregated schools, and the white society loves to hear these stories because they let us off the hook completely. There's a whole host of books with titles like "seven ways to fix the urban schools" or "seven ways to turn it all around in inner-city schools." For some reason they always list seven items; I don't know why. Each plan is usually boosted for a few years, then they're declared a failure and abandoned. They're recipes for what you could call successful segregation. I refuse to play the game of polishing the apple of apartheid. It doesn't propose seven ways to create happy segregation - it calls to abolish segregation in America.

I devoted the last chapter of the book to inner city schools I loved - schools that are fighting the intolerant testing mania and still teaching kids well. Schools in which teachers and principals manage to do a good job and give kids a chance to enjoy their childhood. It's my favorite chapter in the book, and if anyone who reads the book gets depressed, tell them to read that chapter first.

Playing it Any Way But Straight

Dan Savage is the author of the internationally-syndicated sex advice column Savage Love. A mainstay in the alternative press, Savage's funny, provocative and sometimes profane columns range from reflections on bizarre fetishes to his views -- both positive and negative -- of the gay rights movement. Savage juggles being a respected newspaper editor, loving father and partner, and a dignified gay man in today's America, all while writing one of the most salacious weekly advice columns in print today. His latest book, The Commitment, a memoir on gay marriage, drops this September. Campus Progress sat down with Dan to discuss hot conservatives, the urban archipelago, and the two types of Santorum.

How did you respond to the outing of a high ranking staffer of one of your longtime foes -- Rick Santorum?

It's typical. They don't believe what they say about homosexuality, or they wouldn't have people like that on staff. I was on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect a while ago with some jackass from Stop Homosexuality International. The guy just got back from vacation and we were talking about that. And then I looked at him after the show, and said, "How can you just sit there and trade quips with me on some goofy late night show?" and he kind of laughed and shrugged it off. But it goes to the heart of people like James Dobson who say that they believe we're a threat to the survival of the planet ... why don't they ever act like we are?

Speaking of James Dobson, what do you make of his advice on preventing homosexuality in your child through affirming his maleness by showering with him and teaching him to pound square wooden pegs into square holes?

We gay people, we just don't know how to get pegs into holes. That's really beyond our capability.

The Dobson thing was pretty funny. But sometimes in this political climate it is hard to keep laughing. How do you get through it?

How old are you?

I'm 25.

I'm 40. I came out in 1979 and then the AIDS shit started and we weathered that storm. And we'll get through this. I think for some queers or straight folks your age it seems more dire. I still think it's pretty dire. The scariest years of the AIDS epidemic passed because we fought, not because we folded our arms and waited for the storm to blow over, we pushed it away.

Given the ways in which various conservatives want to legislate the gay community, it seems hard to imagine voting for conservatives if you are gay. How do you respond to gay Republicans?

How do you respond to Republican women? Republican Hispanics? There are some people who are just deeply damaged. Look, I have some gay Republican friends who aren't crazy; I would count Andrew Sullivan among them, but he endorsed Kerry last time out. Not all gay Republicans are crazy or willing to lash themselves to the whale of George Bush.

You look at gay people and all studies show we drink more, we smoke more, we do more recreational drugs. Gay people are more likely to take extreme ill-advised sexual risks. There's a certain self-destructive streak that I don't think has anything to do with homosexuality per se, but has everything to do with the pain that gets wedged into your soul when you internalize the bad things you are told about being gay and punish yourself all your life.

I would add voting Republican when you're gay to that list, along with doing crystal meth and having sex with 40 guys in one weekend. They're both dumbass, self-destructive things to do. A certain number of people are stupid enough to off themselves.

In your upcoming book, The Commitment , and a recent This American Life piece, you talk about your son's reaction to gay marriage -- which went from negative to positive. How did his transformation take place?

Kid culture is a really strong thing. All these gender attitudes get passed on just like the "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" song our kid came home singing from kindergarten.

At home, we didn't force him to play with dolls. He didn't like dolls; he liked cars and trucks, bombs and guns. But we didn't present them as boy toys. He learned that at school. Kindergarten is like the Academy Francois. Every noun has a gender, and kids all learn it. Everything has a gender and it gets reinforced in this creepy way that as a parent you can't do much about. It was at school where he learned marriage was for boys and girls.

He couldn't understand why his fathers would even think about marriage -- neither of us were girls. It was all mixed-up in his little head; he thought gay meant living with your best friend. We had to walk it very carefully; I mean we're not going to pop in a gay porn tape or anything, but we said, "Well, friends don't share a bed. People in love do." Eventually he got it. His friends' parents started getting divorced and he was watching a marriage collapse. That was when he understood how serious it was. He felt threatened.

You know, if gay marriage was legal everyone would hear so much less about it. Once it's legal, the only gay marriages you'll hear about are the ones you're invited to. Lou Sheldon and James Dobson won't be invited to any and won't have to worry their thick heads about it again.

Do you have plans to get married?

Not at the moment. We're ambivalent.

But now DJ [Savage's son] is on the marriage bandwagon?

Yeah, he's joined by my mother in the pro-gay marriage camp.

As a gay man raising a son in a nation that can be intolerant of your lifestyle, how do you make America a place that you want your son to grow up in?

I would send people to UrbanArchipelago.com. After the election last year we wrote this group essay in The Stranger [the Seattle-based alt-weekly where Savage serves as editor] arguing that cities that matter went for Kerry. I don't feel estranged from my country. I don't live in the United States of America; I live uptown in Island America. For gays and lesbians it's not a contiguous land mass that stretches from sea to shining sea -- it's a chain of islands -- it's Indonesia. It's an archipelago. You can hop from the island of Chicago or the island of New York or the island of San Francisco or the island of Seattle, but there's a lot of places where you just can't go. Just like there are a lot of places in America where it's not great to be black.

If you look at the electoral map, there are no blue states. There are blue cities. The fight for progressives is an urban battle -- we control the cities. Cities are where the brains, the money, and the power are. That's how we can change the country -- we concentrate on where we live. I'm done with being concerned about people who slit their own throats at the voting booth and want to slit mine too. To hell with them.

Your reader-initiated contest to name a sex act after Senator Rick Santorum is practically legendary. When I Googled Santorum a month ago, his Senate website came up first. I Googled it today and Spreading Santorum came up first. Given the popularity of the site, do you get a lot of negative backlash?

I get a little bit of crazy right-wing feedback but not much. I don't come across in print or in my column like the kind of fag who's going to burst into tears if they send me an e-mail about going to hell. Those people save up that kind of energy for people they think they can move with that. But I do get the occasional e-mail -- "you're going to hell" or "you're wrong about politics" and whatever -- I like those. I like to argue with those people. I get the most vicious e-mails from lefties and fags disagreeing with me on tiny, minor points. It's the narcissism of small differences. I go off the reservation once in a while, I'm just not doctrinaire.

Did you ever get any feedback that made a profound impact?

Every once in a while I get a letter from a straight girl or guy who has never known a gay person who reads the column and likes me -- whatever hang-ups they had the column helped them work through it. One of the clichés of the gay rights movement is that nothing changes a person's position on homosexuality more effectively than knowing a gay person. This apparently doesn't apply to Rick Santorum, but whatever. I run reader- written advice columns for gay and straight 15-year-olds and everyone reads them. It's a great way of reaching people. I don't like to give myself blowjobs; I'm not limber enough plus I'm Catholic and hate myself, but I think that I probably have more straight readers than any other gay writer in America. I kind of think I'm first in the pool, especially for a lot of young straight kids.

Have you ever gotten any questions that you thought were from a family member, friend, or famous person?

Well, actually, I've had an e-mail exchange with Ashton Kutcher about things I wanted to do to [him]. He didn't like the things I suggested.

If you could just give me your Kinsey moment for a second: From a sexual perspective, is there something you feel you've generally learned about your readers or America as a whole?

All straight guys are kinky. All women are crazy, because straight guys are land-based mammals, and women expect them to breathe underwater and then are shocked when they can't. And the culture is nuts about monogamy. There's no normal. I have so much sympathy for straight guys now that I never did before writing the column. Straight guys have so much less room to maneuver sexually and emotionally. Anything that's perceived as remotely female or faggy they can't allow themselves to do without having their sexuality questioned by each other, by themselves, and by us -- by gay people and women. Literally a third of my mail is women asking if their boyfriend is gay because "he cried at my best friend's wedding."

I know quite a few people who think Tucker Carlson is rather cute despite the fact that they can't stand him. Are there any conservative pundits you feel that way about?

Rich Lowry. I think he's kind of hot in a frat boy gone to seed way. But, boy, the Republicans have cornered the market on hot young guys. You go to the Democratic National Convention or the big Dem-lefty-progressive events and you want to pass out bars of soap to all the guys, and tell them to get out of the house every once in a while and get some fucking exercise and expose themselves to the light of the sun. And then you go the Republican Convention and there are all these Abercrombie & Fitch studs everywhere. It makes your teeth hurt.

Perhaps that is fitting seeing as conservatives are so obsessed with sex. I get the sense conservative pundits think and talk about sex more often than anyone.

They do, that's one of the ironies. The Dems are the party of sexual libertarianism; they're the party that doesn't think about sex very often because it's not an issue. Once you reach that position, you don't have to talk about every last goddamn thing the teenagers or gays or whatever is doing. Where I part company with a lot of my lefty friends is that I often think people have to show their consequences of their choices. But the Republicans are obsessed with sex because they want to regulate every last goddamn thing people do. I looked up Antonin Scalia's defense on Lawrence [v. Texas] today for this blog item I wrote on Andrew Sullivan's site and I read off his list of things that (oh my god) Lawrence explicitly permits including masturbation, pre-marital sex, and adultery. And he has to make this long list and be obsessed about all these ways people rub their genitals together. Because he wants to control it.

In 2000, you snuck on to Gary Bauer's presidential campaign and served as a volunteer and wrote about it. Some of the things you described in your article led to you being sentenced to 50 hours of community service. Where did the idea came from? Were there any really satisfying moments?

The cleanest doorknobs among all the candidates in 2000! Well, I went to Iowa without preconceived notions about what I was going to write, and I came down with the flu and couldn't get out of bed for two days. And then I thought it would be amusing to drag my ass in there. It was all very Swiftian and tongue-in-cheek. It was almost hypothetical -- how quickly could I work my way into the campaign, how close could I get to Gary Bauer, how trusting would they be, and how soon. I was alone in the office with all their computer files. I could have erased everything. If I was really a saboteur, there's so much more damage I could have done than I did. The only damage I did was making fun of the little jackass. It occurred to me when I was sick, "I should go in there and get that shit sick." Even though I knew going in you're not really infectious after you come down with the flu, I thought it was kinda funny. And I can neither admit nor deny that I actually licked or didn't lick anything.

What did you do for community service?

I had to do a certain number of hours at a non-profit community based organization, and I have a friend in town who runs an art center and I help out there all the time. So we just started clocking my hours. I worked on a production of a homoerotic parody production of Peter Schaffer's Equus.

I think that's exactly what Gary Bauer had in mind.

I think it is.

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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