Dennis Broe reviews alternative TV and podcasts in the US. Image above: Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump on Late Night
The US election has finally been secured with even Donald Trump tacitly acknowledging that he lost. In the aftermath, the mainstream media has now swung behind Joe Biden and the return to normalcy. The dominant media opposed Trump not on grounds that he was a corporate bloodletter who bombed Syria, murdered Iran’s leading general and laid waste to U.S. natural resources – all actions they either applauded or tacitly condoned – but that he was an unfit and buffoonish manager of the empire.
It is only in the world of alternative media that those questions are being asked about both Trump’s actual crimes and Biden’s neoliberal “normalcy”, which had the global economy on the brink of a new recession before Covid, was rapidly accelerating an income disparity which created the conditions for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and which has done little to slow the environmental devastation that is wrecking the planet.
CNN, MSNBC and the rest have their straw man in Fox News. The mainstream networks seem reasonable in opposing the lunacy and ravings on that station, but since they seldom provide any real solutions beyond corporate-mandated reforms, the two exist in perfect harmony. The goal of all these enterprises is to eliminate any real empathy with working-class suffering, while enabling the mainstream to seem morally uplifting in opposing an enemy with whom they are more similar than they care to admit.
CNN fueled the rise of Trump, then looked to bolster its ratings by using him as its foil and even, once he was defeated, quickly ran a story claiming that Trump, their ratings master, was the frontrunner in 2024. The channel is filled not with Trump opposers but Trump enablers. The relationship is not antagonistic, it’s synergistic.
Covid is raging and the economy's a shambles
The stakes are high with Covid raging and the economy, other than financial speculation on Wall Street, in a shambles. So this is a good time for a sweeping survey of television series and podcasts that are genuinely in opposition not only to Trumpism but also to Biden’s “normalcy,” as well as faux-alternative sites to which they are opposed.
The primary alternative to the insistent drone of corporate media, providing news but pandering to the ratings, is RT. Russia Today, which bills itself as neither right nor left, has in fact become the clearing house for progressive thought in the US and the UK. Three shows, Redacted Tonight, Renegade Inc. and George Galloway’s Sputnik Orbiting the World stand out as startlingly clear on US and British imperial interests, on the widening income gap in the wake of the surrendering of the economy to corporate finance and tech interests, and the tough decisions that need to be made in the name of the planet so that environmental policy is more than just greenwashing.
He wasn't far wrong
Perhaps the station’s insistently critical beat is motivated by an attempt to weaken both countries from within, but whatever the reason, its critical stance often rings true.
Comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, whose title implies it is trafficking in censored news, is a wildly intelligent take on topical events. It uses the Daily Show John Stewart/Trevor Noah approach, opening with Camp’s well-founded rants on such subjects as how in the last election, with the legalization of marijuana in three states, the Reagans lost their war on drugs, a war waged against the poor and an excuse to jail them.
He is ably assisted, in Daily Show format, by a team of “correspondents” that features, for example, Naomi Karavani’s take on how in the last election dark corporate money was defeated in its attempt to restrict issues from ever being on the ballot; Natalie McGills’ report on the deliberate inaccuracies of the Trump census; and Anders Lee’s look at who Biden would have blamed had he lost the election – hint, not the corporate Democratic National Committee for its refusal to take a stand on anything other than it was not Trump. Camp’s angry idealism, and the combination of comedy and astute reporting on the part of his compadres, makes this a cut above both the average late-night comedy show and the average newscast.
Renegade Inc., on the other hand, focuses its once-weekly episode on a single issue, each time with a guest or guests with a take on social problems which is outside the norm. The show is hosted by Brit filmmaker Ross Ashcroft, whose Four Horsemen documentary is a questioning of mainstream economists by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz, Noam Chomsky and Gillian Tett.
Perpetual warfare, dressed up as democracy, peace and human rights
Ashcroft’s deep dive approach to issues has included author Richard Rothstein driving home the links between continual housing and education segregation and inequality. Another episode had lawyer and peace activist Dan Kovalik laying out in stunning detail the U.S. promotion of perpetual warfare under the banner of democracy, peace and human rights
George Galloway has found a second life and a wide audience on RT with his Sputnik Orbiting the World series of interviews and his Mother of All Talk Shows in which he uses the sensationalist tactics of right-wing shock jocks to drive home some truths fueled by his still-strong adherence to a foundering Scottish and British working class, and his wide knowledge of the US and UK’s global imperial policies.
A recent Mother featured journalist Garland Nixon suggesting the assassination of the Iranian atomic scientist was a byproduct of the meeting in Riyadh between Saudi princeling Mohammed bin Salman, US State Department head Mike Pompeo, and Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu.
Of late, Galloway has followed the case of Harry Dunn, the teenage allegedly hit-and-run victim of a female US intelligence official that the US claims has immunity and cannot be extradited, while the same show featured a report on how the U.S. and British governments are colluding in the attempt to extradite Julian Assange.
The highly relevant and creative Means TV
A low budget but highly relevant and creative answer to the millions behind not only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News but also the emerging OAN and Newsmax – two networks Trump may eventually move to – is Means TV. Means bills itself as a “worker-owned streaming service,” a billing that has upset US media reporting on the station. It’s flagship programme is Means Morning News with Sam Sacks and Sam Knight, who in a recent holiday special proudly engaged in the “war on Thanksgiving” instead of as they claimed the usual war on America’s indigenous.
They questioned the joyousness of a holiday which 20 percent of American workers spend not with their families but working, and awarded the week’s “Rich Dick Award” to California Governor Gavin Newsome whose recent partying in defiance of his own protocols proved once again there is one set of rules for the wealthy, and another set of rules for everyone else. The show though could use more creative graphics to go along with the astute commentary.
Means sports show Southpaws has yet to find its voice and is too much a straight copy of mainstream sports shows on Disney-owned ESPN. On the other hand, Art House Politics makes stunning use of its do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic by using on one show a faux drawing and colouring class to convey the full horror of Thanksgiving, with the narrator commenting on the “settler colonial myth” of holiday affirms. The narrator draws an indigenous American, a turkey and a Pilgrim, who the instructor then chastises as responsible for the wholesale appropriation of land that continues to lead to the destruction of the planet. For his crime, he sets the Pilgrim on fire. The show used the conceit of the art class to enact a very funny and effective rethinking of this foundational myth.
Liberal handwringing and mouthpieces for the Democrats
Elements of the so-called alternative media have become increasingly mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Foremost among these is WBAI’s Democracy Now, which since the emergence of Trump might more accurately be dubbed Democrats Now. Liberal hand-wringing increasingly substitutes for analysis with the show “all in” with Syria’s White Helmets, elsewhere dubbed as the Public Relations wing of Al-Qaeda, and during the campaign featured a ludicrous “debate” about how Joe Biden can become a force for good. This is already belied by his administration picks, which recently included the Uber representative who was part of the $200 million defeat of the California law requiring Uber and Lift to behave like responsible employees. The supposedly more progressive vice president Kamela Harris has as one of her senior advisors Tony West, the lawyer who led the charge for Uber against the legislation.
For a long time, the genuine progressive alternative was the Russian radio network Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, with anti-war activist Brian Becker chairing a show that ran for 5 years, 1,138 episodes and boasted over 6000 interviews. The known quantity, the star element, of the show was John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA torture and was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year. When Kiriakou left, the show folded, pointing to a weakness of RT/Sputnik programming, that it is star-driven.
Host Brian Becker with Historian Gerald Horne on The Socialist Program
Becker is back though in a new listener-sponsored show The Socialist Program in which he is a bit more strident, while continuing to dazzle with his own astute analysis and perceptive interviewing acumen, aided by his on-air producers, Walter Smolarek and Nicole Rousselle. Becker and Smolarek contradicted the New York Times suggestion that we will see a new, now chastised and cautious, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State. They did this by hammering home Blinken’s support for the War in Iraq, his aid in planning the bombing and destruction of Libya – the African country with the largest oil reserves – and advocating for bombing Syria.
The team was equally thunderstruck by the timid reaction afforded to Biden’s nominee for first female director of national intelligence Avril Haines, explaining that she was the person who met Obama each week and advised him who to kill that week, in drone bombing missions that numbered far more than those of Trump or any other president. The team reported that Obama’s comment on Haines was that “she was a very nice person.”
Many of these kind of shows also work because of a rotating guest list that most prominently includes economist Richard Wolff, who lays bare the misery and devastation caused in the US by the evisceration of its industries and the acceleration through Covid of what now amounts to “the worst economic crisis in a century.” Another mainstay is Gerald Horne, a prolific author whose history of the slave trade as motivating the European expansion into the Americas, and the settler colonial defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution, was the subject of his last two books.
Finally, there is Mark Swoboda whose inciteful and balanced takes on the Russian state and the Slavic world make him the natural inheritor of the recently deceased and lamented Russian expert Stephen Cohen, whose voice of peace was often shouted down in the bipartisan escalation of US/Russian tensions under Trump.
Another source of what was once alternative news and opinion which has recently also come around to being increasingly a sounding board for Democratic Party politics is the website The Intercept. Democracy Now alumnus Jeremy Scahill put together a comprehensive seven-part soundscape of the Trump administration's failures. Recently, though, a seismic shift occurred when the site’s co-founder and most intrepid reporter, Glen Greenwald, who helped break the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, left. Greenwald said the site censored his report on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s computer, which suggested collusion for profit with the Ukrainian government, similar to the offence that was the pretext for Trump’s impeachment, and a marker of the similarities rather than the differences between the two parties.
Draining the swamp of bipartisan corruption
With Greenwald gone, the best alternative to The Intercept is the podcast Moderate Rebels, with Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, and their website The Grey Zone. This site also includes the reporting of Aaron Mate, who continued to question the faulty assumptions of the Russiagate probe, which the Mueller Report declared not actionable and which were then used as the basis for a phoney and unsuccessful attempt to impeach Trump. Trump is a tax dodger, war criminal and scam artist who could have been indicted on actual impeachable offenses but that, as Mate pointed out, would have meant truly “draining the swamp,” that is focusing attention on the bipartisan corruption that fuels Washington politics.
Moderate Rebel’s Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal
The latest podcast has Blumenthal and Norton examining the “authoritarian censorship” of the French government which like many of the Western democracies becomes more repressive as conditions become more desperate for its citizens. The Grey Zone bills itself as “Investigative Journalism on Empire.”
The last source of more alternative news and opinion is the progressive wing of late-night television, especially Seth Meyers's Late Night and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, excerpts of which can be watched on YouTube. These shows counter the ceaseless and increasingly mirthless frivolity of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the misplaced and often nasty humorlessness of Jimmy Kimmel Live and the “sophisticated” but often vacuous “satire” of Steven Colbert’s The Late Show. In the Trump era all three of these mainstream hosts moved to try to embrace topical humor, which the audience was demanding, as the other two watched Colbert’s emphasis on political humor pull him ahead in the ratings. The positive in all this was that the audience is demanding more relevance and less froth as entertainment, and so endless endorsements must now be mixed with a healthy dose of commentary on the day’s events.
Pummel the president! And Melania!
Of all the late-night topical humor though, Seth Meyers’s A Closer Look (YouTube) is the best written, funniest pummeling of the Trump presidency. The show also boasted the African-American writer and comedian Amber Ruffin, who now has her own show streaming on Peacock which sadly lacks the sharpness and the biting wit of her continued appearances with Meyers. In stunning back-to-back weeks Ruffin, in wig and full pouty gestures, in a week where it was thought the White House was employing Melania doubles, played the first lady, quoting from an official document where she had to turn the page to read the name of their son Baron, but then said Donald had to turn more pages to remember his son’s name. The next week, after Kanye West, 50 Cent and Ice Cube were revealed as Trump backers, she came out as Lil Doof, a rapper who rapped against his own interests.
Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump
The other late-night alternative is Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Noah’s own segments sometimes lack punch but are always well written and graphically astute. The strength of the show lies in the “correspondents” and the segments Noah helps engineer. One of the best was Roy Woods’ countdown of “Donald Trump’s 100 Most Tremendous Scandals,” a highly imaginative montage with Woods’ indignation – coming in at number 1 – that after 99 scandals Trump is still president. Desi Lydic’s Thanksgiving plea to her “family” of conservatives – Uncle Rudi (Giuliani), Cousin Sean (Hannity) and Aunt Jeanine (Pierro) has her asking the Fox mainstays for some civility at the dinner table and each of them, in their own words, refusing.
Finally, back in the fold is Jordan Klepper, returned from hosting his own Steven Colbert like faux-conservative The Opposition. He is even funnier in his “Fingering the Pulse” segments as a debunker of the illogic of Trump supporters who – like the couple in Washington at the recent Million MAGA march there to celebrate “the winning of Donald Trump” – contradict themselves and argue against their own interests.
One of the major gains of the Trump presidency has been an increased interest in analysis, biting commentary and humor and satire, mostly directed against Trump. It will be important to continue that trend as the Biden presidency attempts to confuse and beguile its adherents with a phoney “normalcy” amid the widespread panic, devastation and destruction that has been the accumulated result of all the presidents, especially since Reagan.
Trump ascended into office with the car poised at the edge of the cliff. He gleefully pushed it over and asked the country to enjoy the ride. It will take much more of the kind of sincere honesty that the above shows and sites practice if there is to be a chance of putting the pieces back together.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.
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