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Stewart-Colbert: A rally signifying nothing

By the time Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert got to the portion of their rally that featured the giant paper mache puppet of Colbert Saturday, I was thinking that somewhere in a poor mountain village in a former Eastern bloc Soviet country, there were two aged actors unemployed since the fall of Communism who were putting on a play for peasant children of pre-school age, because that was the only audience they could find and hold. And I thought they were probably using puppets, too -- but they had to be far more engaging and entertaining than this duo on the National Mall.

That is all I am going to say about the wit and so-called keen social commentary of the comedic moments brought to us Saturday at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear by these two cable TV comedians who have been endlessly compared to every satirist from Swift to Twain this week by some of my adoring and critically-challenged colleagues.

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As for the other non-musical guest talent, consider the "performance" by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, of the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters," who spent 10 minutes asking the crowd to do various versions of The Wave. Wasn't that transcendent?

The music was another matter. Mavis Staples' closing the show with "I'll Take You There" was so perfect it was almost worth suffering through Stewart's pompous, empty, politician-phony closing speech to get to it -- almost.

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I say almost because Comedy Central, Stewart's employer and partner in this production on the mall, didn't let me hear all of the closing number. They had to cut away to tell me that today's rally was brought to me by Volkswagen, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and LG (electronics).

And that's one of the things that I think is most fascinating about the whole Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear: the way Comedy Central essentially commodified all those folks who showed up in the mall -- using their presence to create a TV production that could be sold to advertisers for consumption by viewers like me in front of our screens. Weren't the good intentions and hopes of the tens of thousands who came to the mall being exploited for profit? Sure, there was no commercial messaging on the mall. It isn't allowed. Instead it was on the TV version of what was happening on the mall.

Say what you will about Glenn Beck and his rally in August: He and Fox News, his employer, didn't sell the folks who supported him on the mall to advertisers that way. There were no peanut butter cups being advertised on my screen as I watched. There was no commercialization of any kind that I discerned on my TV screen. Not only didn't Fox News televise the rally, the channel barely covered it. But not so Stewart, Colbert and their employers.

As understated as the commercialization of the rally might have been, it was commercialized. I was just getting into Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow performing a new song from Kid Rock when the image and the message flashed on the bottom of the screen that the rally was brought to me by the manufacturer of a peanut butter cup. The musical moment was not enhanced by this reminder for Halloween candy.

Stewart and Colbert have both designated "non-profit partners" as recipients of merchandise sales and any donations fans might want to make. Stewart designated the Trust for the National Mall, which is commendable. But I have found nothing saying Comedy Central and corporate parent Viacom are giving all that advertising money away to charity -- and that was some desirable demographic they were selling. And those are the folks who pay the mortgage for Stewart and Colbert.

But forget about whether or not you liked or hated the music and comedy and commercial messages, the question that remains is what it was all about. After a week of endless stories and hype, what did it amount to?

Stewart tried to address that in a speech after the paper-mache moment. But it was mainly him trying to paper over the pointlessness of the event with a falsely high-sounding message.

"So what exactly is this?" he began.

He was trying to pre-empt criticism and negative reviews by making a distinction for the audience members between what they experienced on the mall and what some members of the press might say they experienced in their reviews, reports and pundit commentary

It is a kind of inoculation technique against bad reviews that Stewart has mastered: He tells his audience that he and they are sharing something profound, but that the stupid and debased press might say otherwise -- because the press is too ignorant to get it. So, he warns them, don't believe what the press says. It also scares some of the press into saying how terrific and funny what he did was for fear of looking like they are too stupid to get his genius.

It is the same technique that conservative politicians like Sarah Palin use when they talk about the "lamestream media." He does it from the left, she from the right. But it is essentially the same trick -- with the press as the enemy.

And then, Stewart opened his speech with a barrage of Barack Obama rhetoric.

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"We live in hard times, but these are not end times," he said. "We can have animus, but not be enemies." My favorite, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

If not for the "dude" insult Stewart arrogantly laid on the president Wednesday night during an interview on his show, I might have thought Obama loaned Stewart one of his writers for this speech.

After telling the audience members their "presence" is all he "wanted" out of the day, Stewart then extended the circle of goodness and light from the mall to all the good Americans out there "who work together everyday to get things done."  That is the real and good America that he said he was celebrating.

Commercials for half-ton trucks in a similar way celebrate men who work together and use half ton trucks to get things done -- that's how simplistic and phony this pitch by Stewart is.

But then, he zeroed on the real enemy: which he termed the "24-hour conflictanator," his favorite target, the 24/7 cable news channels that amplify the loudest and ugliest voices in the culture from the farthest ends of the political spectrum. Easy target, and an old one. A high school student with one course in media literacy can shred a cable news channel critically. But this is Stewart's favorite role to play: media critic. He and Obama and Palin -- they can't stop playing media critic. And now all kinds of politicians are doing it, too. It is actually a very old propaganda technique used by those political leaders who don't have the power to actually shut down the press in favor of a party-controlled house organ.

And Stewart extended his enemies list in his closing speech to pretty much the entire press -- and the Congress. He pointed to Capitol Hill behind him Saturday as he leveled his indictment.

His ultimate message: It's the press and Congress that won't "work together to get things done" like good Americans do. That's the enemy. That's what's wrong with the country.

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First of all, he is wrong in his sweeping indictment of the entire press. Just ask the journalists who are risking their lives to bring us information about wars throughout the world while he's standing on a stage in Washington acting silly for half the show and then spewing high-sounding campaign-trail rhetoric at the end to convince his audience that something important happened during the rally. Maybe Colbert should have given one of those journalists who have given their lives to bring U.S. citizens information about a war one of his mock fear awards. In his grand finale of press critique, Stewart was trafficking in the same kind of superficial and easy scapegoating that politicians rely on.

As I listened to that speech and looked at the crowd that Adam Savage, of "The Mythbusters," had repeatedly announced as being 150,000 strong, I couldn't help but feel sad about what a lost nation we have become in these troubled times.

Hundreds of thousands of us will work longer hours than ever to keep jobs that are harder to hold than at any time since the Great Depression -- and then show up on a Saturday in Washington hoping to hear someone or something that will offer us hope and a way out of the darkness.

Instead, what we get is Beck, Colbert, Stewart, Volkswagen and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

POSTSCRIPT: You want some media criticism? Try this: Think how much better informed we would be as a nation about the monumental election in two days if members of the press had spent half the time reporting and writing about the issues and candidates instead Stewart, Colbert and their exercise in ego on the mall -- their effort to prove they can draw as big an audience as Beck.

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