Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity sidestepped politics by skewering the media
If Jon Stewart had actually created a political rally today, he'd be running against the media.
"We live now in hard times, not end times….and we can have animus and not be enemies," said Daily Show host Stewart, speaking to throngs at the close of his much-debated Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington D.C. "Unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two, broke. The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual pundit panic conflictinator, did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. "
The comic's anti-media stance was a central component of the three-hour rally, which included appearances from Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Tony Bennett, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Sam Waterston, wrestler Mick Foley, former Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater and Real Housewives co-star Teresa Guidice, among many others.
But in a day of screwball comedy bits and pungent pokes of satire, what stood out most was Stewart's passionate, (mostly) serious remarks at the event's end, where he laid blame for much of the country's difficulties with out-of-control partisanship at the feet of today's conflict-addicted media structure.
"The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems…or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire," he said, jabbing at the press for not distinguishing between "real racists" and public figures who make embarrassing gaffes such as Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats out there, but those are titles that must be earned."
One high profile critic had his review ready minutes after the rally ended, as MSNBC star Keith Olbermann tweeted: "It wasn't a big shark but Jon Stewart jumped one just now with the "everybody on Thr cable is the same" naiveté." Later, he noted: "The America before today's cable wasn't reasonable discussion. It was the 1-sided lockstep of Fox and people afraid of Fox. That got us Iraq."
Other news outlets seemed to vote on the Stewart/Colbert rally with their attention, checking in with infrequent updates despite the event's crowd size (several people cited a 150,000 figure onstage; one news outlet reported Comedy Central owner Viacom was told unofficially the crowd topped 200,000). I particularly liked the way Fox News interviewed a guy in red paint dressed like The Devil who claimed he was a reasonable guy; then they told viewers they'd be streaming the rally on their website. Masterful.
Stewart's blame-the-media game will be criticized in the flood of analysis pieces to come as too simplistic (true), ignoring the actions of newsmakers/politicians (also true) and the safest option for keeping his word that the rally would both galvanize the middle and avoid politicking.
But he came with proof: before Stewart's speech, Colbert played up a jokey "debate" with the Daily Show host by playing clips of fear-stoking reports from the three big cable news networks. Achors with lots of face time included Fox News' Glenn Beck, MSNBC's Ed Schultz and CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
In faux awards both men gave out, Stewart highlighted examples of "reasonableness" ranging from Foley's stand against childhood bullying to Velma Hart's respectful-yet-pointed questioning of President Obama. Colbert, by contrast, handed his Medal of Fear to facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg for the service's privacy violations. Another fear medal went to all the news outlets which banned their staffers from attending the rally, including CBS, ABC, the Associated Press, the New York Times and NPR.
"If their employees attend Jon’s rally, someone might think that NPR is liberal," sneered Colbert while brandishing the award. "No one could tell from the free pledge drive hemp fiber tote bags they use to carry their organic cale rollups to their compost parties.”
As the day progressed, such displays proved all the hand-wringing about the political nature of the rally was largely overblown. what fans got was an event focused on musical performances and poking fun at America's out-of-control fear-mongering, mostly embodied in over-hyped media presentations.
But we learned something else: These two award-winning satirists should probably have spent a little more time planning their actual rally.
Because, even as an adoring throng filled the National Mall, the show which awaited them was an uneven affair, filled with a lot of bits that probably sounded a lot funnier during the late-night writing sessions that produced them.
Highlights included an odd war of songs between Stewart's guest, the Muslim singer Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) strumming his '60s beatnik anthem Peace Train and Colbert's pal Ozzy Osbourne wailing a surprisingly out of tune Crazy Train. Of course, it took R&B legends The O'Jays to settle this war of trains, taking the stage with a rousing version of their open-hearted hit Love Train. (by the rally's end, conservative pundits were already grousing about Islam's inclusion, citing past allegations he supported the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie's life, which the singer denies)
Slater appeared in a taped bit to announce perhaps he shouldn't have cursed out passengers and slid down an emergency slide to end his 20-year career as a flight attendant. "Maybe a hug would have solved the whole thing," he added. And some of the musical performances featuring John Legend, Mavis Staples and Tony Bennett, often backed by ace rap/funk/R&B band The Roots, were transcendent.
But long stretches of the rally were less so, as Stewart and Colbert struggled to find the funny. In particular, a joke featuring the show's correspondents flailing to prove the crowd's diversity felt like an okay joke stretched way too long.
In the end, Stewart provided the rally his promised -- mostly an excuse for those opposed to the increasingly hysterical partisanship clouding our news and political process to gather and have a good laugh before a bruising election.
What happens next, is mostly up to them. Which is how any great social critic would have it.