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Jon Stewart, JibJab and Abu Ghraib

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 18 2004

The fact that Jon Stewart's blistering appearance on CNN's Crossfire has now been seen by hundreds of thousands of people on the Web (via Ifilm.com and bittorrent) has got bloggers, like Jeff Jarvis, talking about the "future of TV." With photos from Abu Ghraib flying around the Net despite the Pentagon's best efforts to suppress the story; JibJab's "This Land is Your Land" parody of Bush and Kerry viewed over 65 million times; Big Media outfits ranging from the New York Times to 60 Minutes facing continuing assaults on their credibility; and "a little community website" called Craigslist (that's how Craig Newmark described his site to me when we met two weeks ago, even though it gets a billion visits a month) steadily undermining newspapers' main source of revenue, classified ads; we're clearly in a new environment for political media. It sure seems like we are seeing the emergence of an alternative ad-hoc distribution system, one that makes all the old capital-intensive ways of moving a message seem like a waste of money.

But are these all special cases, and not something truly different emerging?In each case--Abu Ghraib, JibJab and Jon Stewart--there was a huge but hidden source of energy that helped these stories move around the Web. Respectively, they were--the debate over the Iraq War, the intense interest in the presidential election, and Stewart's own celebrity and popularity. Can the Web perform this mass-distribution trick without people already knowing--because of the old media/political system--that this story is something they are interested in?