Inside D.C. entertainment

Shocker: Critics continue to criticize Stewart's 'Sanity' rally

November 1, 2010 - 03:17 PM
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The press riser at Stewart's rally. (Photo: TBD Staff)

Given the steady stream of negative copy published before the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" had even taken place, it's no surprise that the event was followed by a flood of the same. But whereas the pre-rally criticism focused on whether Jon Stewart was, or was not, taking himself seriously enough, the post-rally criticism aimed mostly at Stewart's critique of — guess who? — the media. If you think, as I do, that cultural critics are a prickly lot, wait 'til you hear what they have to say after their profession is mocked for three hours in front of a crowd of 215,000 people.

A roundup of the punditry, then:

• At the Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik tops his curmudgeonly pre-rally rant with this: "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."

Did you follow that? I didn't, which must mean I'm one of the "adoring and critically-challenged colleagues" to which he refers.

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Arianna Huffington in the press pen. (Photo: Ryan Kearney)

"The music was another matter," he continues. "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." And he says "almost," he explains, because he was sick of being sold Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. I can sympathize with his distaste for the commercialization of the event by Comedy Central, but then why didn't he watch it on C-SPAN? Also, who doesn't love Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? They're delicious. In fact, I'M EATING ONE RIGHT NOW.

Zurawik has so much to say on the matter, he even adds this 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 [of] Stewart, Colbert and their exercise in ego on the mall — their effort to prove they can draw as big an audience as Beck."

For someone who watches TV for a living, he shows an impressive lack of understanding of cable news programming. The air time filled with rally coverage would not otherwise have been spent on election coverage, but rather the arrest in the Al-Qaeda mail-bomb plot. Or perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal and Taylor Swift's surprise romance.

• Howard Kurtz, over at the Daily Beast, perpetuates the myth that most of Stewart's fans are barely old enough to drive, calling the ralliers "mostly young." I was in the same press pen as he, and yet when I scanned the crowd behind us, I saw a good deal of gray hair; the average age, not the ceiling, was 35. I suppose "young" is a relative term. He then applies his observational wit to the press: "I was in a sea of standups on a press riser, listening to correspondents reporting on the awesomeness of the crowd size. There was a British woman with a mike who sounded smarter than everyone else, due to her Oxford diction."

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Howard Kurtz. (Photo: Ryan Kearney)

On the content of the rally itself, he writes, "If much of the material was weaker than the average Daily Show, the grandiosity of the venue seemed to compensate. The gathering lived up to its promise not to be overtly, or even implicitly, political. Arianna Huffington, who spent a quarter-million bucks to bus people here from New York, beamed as she watched the proceedings. 'It's going perfectly,' she said. 'Not one wrong note anyone could point to. No one could say it's political.'" I agree with Kurtz's assessment of the rally's comedic merits relative to The Daily Show, but Huffington may have been blinded by the amount of money she invested in the rally — or perhaps Kid Rock hadn't taken the stage yet. He hit a whole song's worth of wrong notes.

As for Stewart's speech: "Well, give him this. He came out from under the gags, shed his comedic persona, and took a stand. Stewart's outrage at the sensationalism and superficiality of cable is largely on target. But it is, as he said, a 'funhouse mirror' held up to a nasty political system and a conflict-driven society. In that sense, it was too much of an easy target for a man who, briefly, occupied a huge stage."

• David Carr responds similarly in the Times. He describes Stewart as a "political leader" — which, he adds, "is what you call somebody if he hosts a rally on the Washington Mall for over 200,000 people" — and says the Daily Show host's closing remarks comprised a "deft, very articulate stump speech" that "took steady aim on the one American institution that everyone can agree to hate: The Media."

Later, he writes: "It was a beautiful day on the Mall, and who doesn’t like kicking the press around, but speaking of ants, media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution — not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court — seems to be above petty partisan bickering. Mr. Stewart couldn’t really go there and instead suggested it was those guys over there in the press tent who had the blood of democracy on their hands."

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A French reporter on the press risers. (Photo: Ryan Kearney)

Carr goes on to call Stewart's evisceration of the press a "compelling, sharply delivered critique that went down well on the Mall and on television, all amid a forest of hilarious signs and some pretty funny stuff that preceded it." But he adds, "Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him."

While this is a valuable point, it's worth noting that there's nothing especially funny about paychecks, and it's a lot harder to craft a video montage about them.

Carr concludes by lamenting — appropriately, I think — that Stewart wasn't as ruthless at the rally as he often is on The Daily Show: "His barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers."

• The Post's Robert McCartney uses his reportorial powers to uncover a shocking truth about the ralliers — that they're "decidedly partisan and decidedly liberal." (Two "decidedly"s in one sentence: Erik Wemple would not approve.) Then McCartney basically warns liberals not to be wimps: "It's fine to crack jokes and urge everyone to be more kumbaya, but the liberals who worship Stewart should not fall victim to a long-standing criticism once summed up by poet Robert Frost, who said, 'A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.'"

• Finally, James Poniewozik of Time magazine writes, "It was a mishmash, and sometimes felt too long. (The first hour or so, with a Roots / John Legend jam leading into the Mythbusters[?!], seemed like stalling for time.) It was sometimes flat, awkwardly paced and tentative in making its arguments." I would agree here as well — though, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow duet was far more cringeworthy than The Roots with John Legend were.

"Among the most devastating sections of the rally," continues Poniewozik, "were a series of 'fear montages' Colbert played during a mock-debate with Stewart, showing the role of cable news in particular in whipping up the state of alarm and antagonism that the rally was reacting against. (The cable networks, by the way, were dipping in and out of coverage of the rally through the afternoon.) Don't be surprised to see some defensive media responses to the critiques over the next few days."

Lo and behold.

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