Rally to Restore the Media
Approximately 215,000 people gathered on the National Mall last Saturday, including me, for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. But, as the hosts themselves acknowledged, it was not clear why exactly everyone had come.
Judging by the rally’s schedule, the purpose seemed to be entertainment, at least in part; it included musical acts from the Roots, Sheryl Crow, the artist formerly (and, judging by post-rally discussions, still) known as Cat Stevens, Ozzy Osbourne, Kid Rock, and more, as well as videos, skits, and celebrity appearances. One highlight many attendees seemed to enjoy was viewing the witty faux-protest signs brought by other attendees. But surely few of those 215,000 people descended on downtown DC without the impression that something specifically political was going to happen up on stage.
The rally’s final act was Stewart’s “keynote address,” for which he discarded the fundamentally negative (which is to say, satirical) tone of the previous three hours to state his own reasons for gathering hundreds of thousands of people together three days before a national election. For many listeners, including myself, the address was initially most notable for what it didn’t include: a call to vote. Indeed, at the post-rally press conference, when Washington City Paper editor Mike Madden asked Stewart if he thought people should vote, Stewart responded, “I think people should do what moves them, and that’s not my place to make that choice for them.”
One point upon which all political speeches agree is that you should vote, so the omission of this customary exhortation is quite telling. Although the crowd was undeniably liberal—perhaps even more so than the 1.8 million who showed up for President Obama’s inauguration in 2009—and Stewart has never seriously pretended to be anything but liberal himself, the keynote was scrupulously nonpartisan. Every criticism of a conservative was matched with criticism of a liberal. Many in the audience left feeling disappointed and unfulfilled; as the comparisons between the crowd sizes last Saturday and at Glenn Beck’s rally in August show, Stewart’s rally was, for many, an anti-Tea Party event, but the hosts seemed almost unaware of this mission. Fingers were pointed equally in all directions, and the only detectable political message was a condemnation of the political. We can get along with each other and get things done in everyday life, Stewart said. It’s only in politics that our disagreements seem insurmountable, so let’s just stop being so political.
To a liberal, this message was somewhat infuriating, especially coming from a fellow liberal. Equating the radical right with the moderate left, as Stewart did, is just factually incorrect. Dissuading public figures from engaging vehemently with demagogues, xenophobes, and bigots is counterproductive, to say the least. And failing to urge a crowd of 215,000 liberals to vote days before an election where high Republican turnout is expected to flip the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate is irresponsible—not just because liberals want their team to win, but because of the human cost of Republican control.
Stewart’s choice of messages is comprehensible only in light of the realization that politics is, fundamentally, not what he’s about. He’s not just a comedian, of course. When people explain his influence and ambitions beyond comedy, they often point to his comments on Crossfire in 2004 attacking the show’s “partisan hackery” that led to its cancellation soon after. In 2009, Stewart spent a week attacking financial news channel CNBC, both on his own show and on Letterman, for giving investors bad advice during the financial crisis and failing to live up to its journalistic mission. The week culminated with CNBC personality Jim Cramer’s appearance on the Daily Show, where Stewart attacked him and his channel for gimmickry and neglecting their reporting duties, for which Cramer apologized. Having thus humbled CNN and CNBC, Stewart has in recent years turned his attention increasingly towards Fox News Channel, which he lampoons almost every night.
All of this impassioned advocacy is often interpreted as being political, and it is. But first and foremost, it’s media criticism. Stewart is on a one-man mission to reform the media, to chide them back into a prelapsarian analog age. With the increasing politicization of the media—and perhaps even without it—there is an inherently political aspect to this mission. But anyone expecting a political rabble-rouser last Saturday was disappointed. Stewart’s enemy isn’t the Republican Party, or conservatives, or even the Tea Party; it’s Fox News, and everything else in modern media that shares its shrill, irresponsible brand of journalism. In order to be taken seriously as a critic of Fox’s methods rather than its ideology, Stewart needs to point as many fingers at the left as at the right, so he does.
What happened last Saturday wasn’t the biggest political rally of the season; it was, perhaps, the biggest media criticism rally of all time.
This seems like a safe bet, in fact, because media criticism alone doesn’t have the kind of mass appeal that can attract 215,000 supporters from thousands of miles away. Only when the conditions are right and the stars align does a media criticism rally get mistaken for a political rally. Despite his fans’ expectations, though, Stewart kept his eye on his goals: civility, fairness, objectivity—in other words, responsible media. It’s no wonder, then, that voting never came up.
Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.