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.