Stewart’s and Colbert’s Joke is On the Media

When an institution can’t be trusted, yet cannot comprehend the message of distrust, then what you’ve got is a case of institutional denial.  Case in point: the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.  The brainchild of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and his co-comedian Steven Colbert on cable television’s The Comedy Channel, the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ was a 2-hour stage version of the duo’s nightly TV shows.

Jon Stewart made it clear in publicity before the event that it was not a political rally.

For example, the opening of Larry King’s interview with Stewart:

KING: Is it a political rally?

STEWART: No. It is in fact not a political rally.

But the press was having none of it.

Before the event, the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote that ‘my heart sank’ when she heard the announcement because—according to her—it was a politically naïve attempt at liberals to declare themselves centrist, thus dooming both. Clearly a political rally, in her view.

Over at the New York Times, Tobin Harshaw’s Opinionator Blog wrote a post called “Jon Stewart on the Hustings,” overtly political lingo. (He gave the post three meta-tags: Jon Stewart, Politics, and Rallies).  Another disbeliever.

At Slate, Timothy Noah spoke about “Stewart-Colbertism,” and suggested “a more legitimate (and probably more successful) political impulse would be to try to persuade the unenlightened that you have a better idea.” Another media person, again insisting it was to be a political rally.

Even wry conservative David Brooks at the NYTimes said, “There’s a jump-the-shark danger here for Stewart and Colbert. After all when comedians stop being jesters they are notorious for jumping all the way over and becoming preachers, with no middle ground.” He, too, expected a political event.

Stewart Did What He Said He Would Do

Fast forward to the rally itself (and yes, I was there). More than anything, the rally was a three-hour (on-time start, on-time finish) theatrical version of the Daily Show itself, held outdoors in crisp autumn air, with what looked to me like a little over 200,000 of their fans.

At the rally itself, no candidates’ names were uttered. No legislation or causes were mentioned. Stewart and Colbert pointedly did not even call for people to vote.  In this, Stewart delivered exactly what he and Colbert had said they would: a non-political show about the theme of ‘sanity’ in our public dialogue.

What the Rally Was Really About

The rally was political in one sense—it was about meta-politics. It was about the language and the processes that we use to conduct politics. Stewart couldn’t have been more clear about this in his moving 12-minute summation: 

We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of the main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.

The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker…

The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false.

We work together to get things done every damn day…the only place we don’t is here [gestures to the Capital building] or on cable TV.

I kept a running tab of the signs I saw–see my list here. I’d say maybe 2% were overtly political (e.g. pro-Obama, support Democrats); another 10% were culturally-political (“think outside the Fox”), and 10% were anarchic (“this is a sign”). The remaining 78% or so were exactly in line with what Stewart said the rally was about: sanity in public dialogue.  Prototypical signs were:

* What do we want? Incremental change for the betterment of society! When do we want it? As soon as is reasonably practical.

* Hyperbole is murdering America.

* Everyone poops (drawings of elephant and donkey pooping).

It was only four years ago that Stewart skewered CNN’s Crossfire, with Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. His first words were, “Why do you argue, the two of you?” He went on to say, “I’m here to confront you, because we need help from the media—and they’re hurting us.”

And for 14 hilarious, painful minutes, Carlson and Begala could not believe he was serious.  But he was.

Not much has changed in those four years.  Because even after the rally, most of the press still missed the point.

The Press Still Doesn’t Get the Joke

The day after the event, the New York Times’ opening paragraph on the story called it “a political event,” and a "Democratic Rally." Fox News, which put the words “non-political” in quotes in its headline before the event, forced the political spin on it after the fact, saying “Dems Can’t Ride Stewart’s Wave.”

There are exceptions: Time Magazine got it right, saying, “The major target here was the media.

But for the most part, the media has a hard time getting what Geoffrey Baym, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor, had to say about it before the rally:

"What he’s really calling for is not the election of Democrats or the defeat of Republicans; he’s calling for a rethinking of the way we talk about politics, and that has really broad appeal. People are feeling very left out by the contemporary political system."

When Jesters Tell the Truth, Smart Kings Listen 

In the Capitol building that Stewart gestured toward from his non-political podium, the once-rare filibuster has become commonplace. Parties are increasingly explicit that their sole goal is to defeat the other party. 

And the media are a huge enabler. Newspapers and magazines are dying a not-so-slow death, cutting editorial staff, desperately trying to find viability in a digital world that is cheaper and that insists on atomizing content. The slow disappearance of ‘middle of the road’ CNN between the opposing power of rightist-Fox and leftist-MSNBC in the broadcast realm is testimony to the ascendance of adversarial journalism.

The recent villification and condemnation of Shirley Sherrod for remarks taken out of context (through selective editing) is a horrific example of relying on an extended network of unverified news sources. The speed with which both government and press alike rushed to judgment is a wake-up call for how fragile credibility has become.

The ultimate irony is the inability of politicians and the media itself to hear Stewart’s message.  It is traditionally the court jester to whom we look to speak the truth; but what do you do when the object of the joke, the court itself, doesn’t get it?

I’d say the joke’s on us all–and it’s not funny. In fact–as Stewart keeps trying to insist–it’s serious.  Very serious.

Public trust in both government and media is plummeting.  A recent Gallup poll showed Congress dead last among 16 institutions, with TV news and newspapers rated little better.  As long as both institutions stay in denial and ignore the strong messages of distrust they are both sending out, expect us all to reap the social consequences of broken trust, which look like this:

  • Longer time to reach decisions–social, legal, economic
  • Lack of commitment to decisions jointly made–by states, counties, towns, and citizens
  • More lawyers, laws, lawsuits, and costly court cases
  • More broken agreements, arrests, jailings, police, prison populations
  • Less value added, more transaction costs spent arguing over the distribution of value
  • More accounting, studies, data, commissions, statistics, records
  • More pessimism, anger, psychiatric disorders, depressions, medication
  • More fragmented citizenry, more acrimony, less agreement with neighbors
  • Less commitment to group initiatives–infrastructure, education, transportation
  • A gradual withdrawal into narrower and narrower sectarian interest groups.

The court jester is the canary in the cage, giving us all fair warning of what could be.

8 replies
  1. Dr. Jim Sellner, PhD., DipC.
    Dr. Jim Sellner, PhD., DipC. says:

    Look out for post-election depression and cynicism.

    There’s a thing called ACE – Adverse Childhood Experiences. The result of which is a who bunch of pinful, personal difficulties.

    I think the American public  (i"m Canadian, eh) will be suffering from Adverse Election Expereinces — AEE!

    The points you make in this piece today are, i think, bang on. I guess i wonder how has the media strayed so far off course to a Jerry Springer type reporting of the "news?"

    We gone from an era in which we didn’t really know what was going on to being overwhelmed with the reaility of the grunge of life "Today 3 people died in China as a result of tripping on a boulder. The world is coming to an end!"

    The really bad part of this irresponsible media binge of bad news is that we’re turning off. Who can tell what is "real" and what is sensationalized otu of context.

    I know I can’t a lot of the time.

    Awareness is good but only if ethics, respect and principles guide our actions.

    Regards, respectuflly,



  2. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Wasn’t the commonly accepted definition of politics, the art of compromise, "…I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony.” Jefferson

    So we trusted decent politicians (never used to be an oxymoron) once they learned the lay of the political land, to create coalitions and find acceptable middle ground. Unfortunately, harmony doesn’t "sell" today. Rigid ideology (whatever side) is the only thing that sells papers, TV time, etc. With the increased visibility, the voters demand more excessively rigid adherence to principle and ideological positions by those politicians. Unfortunately, more than is socially optimal, so there is no harmony & nothing gets accomplished. Except creating more grist for the media mill.


  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Wonderful post, Charlie, especially on the eve of a US general election.

    I hope your readers who are grappling with institutional denial in other fields will recognize their situations in this post, too.

    You wrote:

    > …expect us all to reap the social consequences of broken trust, which look like this:

    • More pessimism, anger, psychiatric disorders, depressions, medication
    • More fragmented citizenry, more acrimony, less agreement with neighbors
    • Less commitment to group initiatives–infrastructure, education, transportation

    I’d add low voter turnout to the list of concsequences.

    Depression + alienation/isolation + civic disengatement is a recipe for supressing election turnout. When informed engagement is a cornerstone of healthy democracy, low turnout (and high turnout of low information voters) spells trouble for all of us.

    Did you know that Oct 10 marked the 99th anniversary of women getting the vote in California? And don’t get me started on repealing Jim Crow. These are rights that were fought for in living memory. And we’re collectively walking away from those rights.

    (Of course, some contituencies have high turnout anyway, and states with referenda or campaigns that put red meat political issues in play will have  higher turnouts. I’ll leave the question of cui bono outside this discussion.)

    If you’re a US citizen with the right to vote, please combat this trend and got to polls to cast your vote tomorrow. If you don’t know who the candidates are or what your local ballot initiatives are about, start at Project Vote Smart.

    . . .

    Charlie, one of my very favourite posts you’ve written was a set of recommendations for how the Pharmaceutical Industry can restore trust. If you’re feeling rambunctious, I’d love to see you write  similar prescriptions for media and politics, at the institutional level or pointed at what individual journalists and politicians can accomplish. Someone clearly needs to show them the way: they’re not figuring it out on their own.

  4. Frederic Abramson
    Frederic Abramson says:

    Excellent post! However, I don’t agree with your point about regarding more lawyers, lawsuits, court cases et. al. as a consequence of broken trust.

    Most court cases that clog are legal system are not a result of broken trust. For example:

    1. Personal injury lawsuits: On the one hand, you have insurance companies who won’t pay claims that they are clearly liable for (ie you are hit in the rear while standing at a light) so that they can collect interest for 3-5 years v. a few plaintiff’s attorneys representing clients w/out a valid claim (usually rare b/c plaintiff attorneys have to pick up the costs).


    2. Foreclosure plus consumer debt litigation. Due to economic conditions, not a lack of trust.

    The number of lawyers are actually fixed due to the number of law schools. The ABA and a number of law deans have recently advocated cutting law schools.

    The numbers also show that the legal market for new law graduates has fallen dramatically.   

    I would write more, but I have to pick up my kids.  


  5. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, I don’t know if you’ read Jeff Jarvis (cf Jeff Jarvis Wikipedia profile, and Jeff Jarvis Twitter feed), but he has written two excellent (and likeminded) articles on the rally.

    1. At BuzzMachine (his blog), he writes his reactions to the rally, in To Rally, Perchance to Dream:

    > "Jon Stewart proved to be closer to the public than the journalists charged with serving them. That’s why we trust him and not you, media people. He’s not afraid to get a little of us on him."

    2. In his column at the Guardian, he writes about the NPR kerfuffle, Objectivity is a lie, so the truth requires real citizen journalism, and makes the very interesting observation that in contrast to NPR banning off-duty staff from attending the rally, the Guardian just issued new employee social media guidelines that encourage civic engagement and are based on trust.

    (Oh, and apropos of nothing, these just warmed my heart: Jon Stewart Rally Missed Connections.)

  6. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Dr. Jim,

    your comments got me percolating:

    "Look out for post-election depression and cynicism…I think the American public…will be suffering from Adverse Election Experiences — AEE! "

    I’ll, too, be curious…if the post-election depression and cynicism will be a different flavor of the pre-election depression and cynicism. And, if so, why? Over and above the change in party pluralities or majorities.  Perhaps re-visit this issue about a year down the road when (a possible) buyers’ remorse sets in. What then? How the need for immediate gratification can be so frustrating and self-defeating.

    "I guess i wonder how has the media strayed so far off course to a Jerry Springer type reporting of the "news?"

    For one, they both feed on drama." And a dumbed-down audience (electorate?) is the secret sauce that makes the drama "work." And, what used to be a distraction – whether it’s reality TV or "news" that isn’t news – is now mainstream for much of the population. We have allowed distractions to become our "reality."  It’s like morphing into another parallel universe and calling it Earth.

    "We gone from an era in which we didn’t really know what was going on to being overwhelmed with the reality"…

    …of still not knowing what is really, really going on but making believe we do…as happens when the neo-cortex is short-circuited by the limbic/amygdala brains…
    "Awareness is good but only if ethics, respect and principles guide our actions"

    …and, I might add, that awareness without a healthy, conscious, and critical self-reflection on the "truth" of such "awareness" amounts to little or no personal growth, development, true insight or discernment –  which are sorely needed to eliminate drama and return to reality.

    It’s not just the media on whom the joke rests.  As Pogo said, "…it’s us."


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