Jon Stewart, Mall rat
I've been listening to Jon Stewart rail against the media for a decade now -- in interviews, at the conventions, in my television studio. But the act never gets old.
The journalism racket just keeps producing fresh fodder for him.
I learned early on that it was not just shtick. When the "Daily Show" dude appeared on my CNN program, we chatted afterward about how exasperated he was with the media. When I was a guest years later on his Comedy Central show, he got so wound up that he kept on jousting with me well past my allotted six minutes -- after quietly assuring me, "Don't worry, we'll cut this part out."
But as the comic descends on the Mall -- along with his wingman Stephen Colbert -- is he abandoning the safety of Post-Ironic Mountain and recasting himself as ... a serious dude?
Keep in mind that Stewart loves to jab at political extremes. And who is enabling the extremes these days more than the increasingly polarized media?
He singles out the 24-hour networks (which will undoubtedly cover the rally). At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Stewart told reporters that cable news is a "brutish, slow-witted beast" that creates a "false sense of urgency." Uh, hard to argue with that.
Could the rally, ah, affect the midterms? "Why would there be panic about the first fun or galvanizing event that Barack Obama's liberal base had to look forward to since their limited edition Shepard Fairey prints came in the mail?" asks Slate's Dave Weigel. "It's simple. Democrats look at the electoral map and see that they're doomed. Their hope rests on the resilience of liberal activists and union members, who will be spending the final 72 hours of the campaign pulling voters to the polls. And all of a sudden here come Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, turning a joke into a mega-rally and plucking liberals right out of their get-out-the-vote operations during their most crucial weekend."
But Weigel concludes it will probably help.
What's striking is how many journalists -- Brian Williams, for example -- admire Stewart, even as he uses their profession as a punching bag. That's because they know most of his punches are on target. If Stewart were swinging wildly and missing, media types would object. (Conservative journalists such as Tucker Carlson, who was on the receiving end of the ridicule during Stewart's famous appearance on "Crossfire," obviously beg to differ.)
Stewart says his ultimate goal is to make people laugh. But he doesn't hide behind the just-a-comedian cop-out. His satire is designed to score salient points. That's why his criticism counts.
As for the rally, David Carr quotes writer and producer Michael Hirschhorn as saying: "Stewart and Colbert are awkwardly transitioning from media figures to political figures with an understanding that there may not be that much difference anymore."
In a revealing interview with New York magazine, Stewart says he first decided to whack the media when he took his fledgling program to the 2000 conventions:
"We were at that point merry pranksters -- guys on a bus going, That guy looks like Richard Gephardt!" he says."The more we got to meet people [in the media], it was -- 'Oh! You're [blanking] retarded! You don't care!' The pettiness of it, the strange lack of passion for any kind of moral or editorial authority, always struck me as weird. We felt like, we're serious people doing an unserious thing, and they're unserious people doing a very serious thing." [...]
Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. "I assume there are bad actors in society," Stewart says. "It's inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. [...]
"The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, 'Boy, I wish I could say what you're saying.' You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can't say it?" Stewart says. "It's one reason I admire Fox. They're great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters: 'Oh, that's the woman who's very afraid of Black Panthers! I can't wait to see what happens next. Oh, look, it's the ex-alcoholic man who believes that Woodrow Wilson continues to wreak havoc on this country! This is exciting!' Even the Fox morning show, the way they're able to present propaganda as though it's merely innocent thoughts occurring to them. ... Whereas MSNBC will trace the word and say, 'If you don't understand that, you're an idiot!' The mistake they make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings."
And here's the bottom line: "We're not provocateurs, we're not activists; we are reacting for our own catharsis," Stewart says. "There is a line into demagoguery, and we try very hard to express ourselves but not move into, 'So follow me! And I will lead you to the land of answers, my people!' You can fall in love with your own idea of common sense. Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having a full belief in yourself to know the answer. So you can say all this stuff, but underneath, you're going, 'But of course, I'm [blanking] idiotic.' It's why we don't lead a lot of marches."
So will the Oct. 30 rally come off as nothing more than comic relief? I doubt it. Stewart knows how to walk that tightrope. Though this time there's no safety net.
More on the Stewart, Colbert rallies
| September 21, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories: Latest stories, Top story | Tags: Comedy Central, Daily Show, Fox, Jon Stewart, Obama, Stephen Colbert
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