Stewart’s Sisyphean Mission

Democracy Events Media

The Rally to Restore Sanity, the Media, and the Future of American Democracy

The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflict-inator 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.1

- Jon Stewart, Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” addressed the single most profound challenge of our time: the means and processes by which a democratic people solve common challenges. Unfortunately, modern political discussion in the United States is mostly a cacophonous hysteria as unsophisticated as grade school gossip.

The press is rightly considered the Fourth Estate, reflecting its centrality to maintaining our democratic republic The Founders of this country believed people could be trusted with their government, a theory derided and mocked throughout history. Thomas Jefferson wrote poetically, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,”2 but he was hopeful.

Howard Kurtz, longtime media critic for The Washington Post, believes “For too long we have published newspapers aimed at other journalists—talking to ourselves, really, and to the insiders we gossip with.”3 The complexity of our challenges also means most reporters simply do not understand the substance of important issues. Jerry Knight, a banking reporter at The Washington Post throughout the Savings and Loan Crises of the 1980s, reflecting on the lack of substantive coverage lamented, “A lot of reporters don’t know anything about economics.”4 The business reporters who do, however, are relegated to the back pages alongside the stock charts. James Fallows, one of our foremost reporters, decided after three appearances on the weekly public affairs program “The McLaughlin Group,” to avoid talk shows because, he admirably admits, “I became uncomfortable with …the need to express opinions on subjects I knew little or nothing about—that weeks’ developments in the Middle East, for instance, or an emerging crisis in some Third World country I had never reported on or visited.”5 Ellen Goodman, a longtime syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, relays, “Whenever you're called, …if it's a show on very early in the morning or late at night, the easiest way to get out of doing it is to say, ‘Well, I have mixed feelings about this.’”6 Pundits, unfortunately, have assumed that role without compunction.

Several academic studies show the press’ deleterious effect, independent of political candidates themselves. Two communications professors staged a mock talk show (“Indiana Week in Review”) with actors portraying candidates, presenting their platforms in a civil discussion before one audience, and argumentatively before another. Both audiences reported similar feelings for their preferred candidate, but the audience randomly assigned to the impolite discussion reported far more intense antipathy toward the opponent of their preferred candidate, creating a more polarized “electorate.”7 Studies of newspapers show similar effects. Portraying politics as theater, or as a spectator sport, encourages, says sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, “root[ing] for one side or the other, but nothing else is expected of you. This is as different from participatory democracy as watching a ball game on television is from going out and playing one.”8

A 1997 Pew survey reports, “Americans deplore tabloid-style news coverage but are clearly drawn to it. On the one hand, the public applauds press restraint, but at the same time, significant proportions closely follow crime stories involving celebrities.” So, not surprisingly, it also found that 75% of the public knew the amount of damages O.J. Simpson was ordered to pay in civil trial while only 52% knew that President Clinton had named education his top priority for the second term.9

Jon Stewart, host of the political satire program “The Daily Show,” deplores this media environment. In October 2004 he appeared on the CNN political debate program “Crossfire” with pundits Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to criticize the show: “It’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.” Ironically, the show’s own audience erupted in applause. Stewart accused the two of “doing theater when what you should be doing is debate.” Three months later, CNN cancelled Crossfire, citing Stewart’s comments as a major impetus.10 A subsequent New York Times editorial hoped “this could be the start of something big” in transforming political television away from “talking heads.”11 But little has changed.  This past May, President Barack Obama warned the graduates of the University of Michigan that “incivility …is starting to creep into the center of our discourse,” which “closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation.”12 Examples abound of the worsening of public discourse over the past couple of decades.13

Stewart once told Charlie Rose, whose interview program represents one of the last few bastions of civil discourse, “The basic premise of political discourse today is: ‘We have the swift boat ads. To discuss it we have Donna Brazile from the left and Bay Buchanan from the right. Donna? ‘The ads are unfair.’ Bay? ‘I think it’s very fair.’ Thank you both for coming; that was a very enjoyable discussion. Let’s move on.’ There is no expertise from the anchor chair and I don’t understand that.”14 In the 1980s, The Washington Post had begun “truth squading” the factual errors in public speeches, but the concept fizzled. Journalists now rely on the opposition to say something contradictory, and then quote both sides. Bill Moyers, one of the deans of American journalism, asked Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus if that qualifies as objectivity. Pincus replied ruefully, “If you think there are only two sides, and if you're not interested in the facts. And the facts are separate from, you know, what one side says about the other.”15 “Politicians, of course, they’re trying to get away with as much as they can,” Stewart acknowledges. But when “political parties are working… to find the loopholes and the vulnerabilities in the media system, the media has to be better.”16 To suggest otherwise is “like saying the referee for a football game is just there to make sure no one dies. … And if anything …by allowing it on television you are vouching for it. [You’re granting] the credibility of access and publication.”17

This past December, The New York Times characterized the health insurance reform debate as “the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing that seemed to move in inverse proportion to a rising influence of …hostilities on talk shows and in the blogosphere.”18 The inability of the media to educate constituents is reflected in that 39% of Americans angrily demanded the government “stay out of Medicare” (another 15% answered “not sure”).19 But Medicare, of course, is a government program.

Ironically, one of the best “journalists” has proved to be Jon Stewart. On the day of President Obama’s “health care summit,” Megyn Kelly’s two-hour “America Live”on FOX News interviewed a sample of four senior citizens at a retirement home, all opposed to the bill. Stewart joked that, according to Kelly, 100% of Americans are virulently opposed to the reform proposal. She also interviewed a doctor and somebody who attended a town hall meeting, both strongly against the proposal. Stewart wondered why Kelly didn’t interview, say, the part-time receptionist or minimum wage custodian at the retirement home—that is, anybody not already receiving socialized Medicare. “Or, since the American Medical Association supports health care reform, you might be surprised they couldn’t find a doctor who would be more positive about it.” To address Kelly’s poll showing 73% of Americans opposed the bill, he cited polls from ABC News-Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, Quinnipiac, and Newsweek showing strong pluralities supporting the bill’s provisions, once they are explained to them. Finally, after showing Kelly in 2008 dismissing candidate Obama’s strong polling numbers prior to the presidential election as unreliable, Stewart disparaged FOX’s use of polling as “depend[ent] on your opinion of what the news should be.”20

Industry groups, leading journalists, and academics admire “The Daily Show.” Bill Moyers proclaimed, “You simply can't understand American politics in the new millennium without ‘The Daily Show.’”21 Peter Jennings, former ABC News anchor, once said of Stewart, “He says in public what a lot of us say privately in the newsroom.”22 For its coverage of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Stewart’s program won the Peabody Award each of those years, as well as the 2004 Television Critics Outstanding News Award, beating out public affairs stalwarts such as “Meet the Press,” “Nightline,” and “Frontline.” Melanie McFarland, who presented the latter award, noted, “So much of the news is not digestion but regurgitation.”23 Geoffrey Baym ,a professor of media studies at the University of North Carolina, considers the show not “‘fake news, but as an alternative journalism, one that uses satire to interrogate power, parody to critique cotemporary news, and dialogue to enact a model of deliberative democracy.”24 "The Daily Show” also won the 2005 NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language “[f]or regularly providing a penetrating critique of obfuscation, lying, and distortion of the media, corporations, and politicians.”25 The American Journalism Review and  the Journal of Mass Media Ethics have heaped similar praise.26 Unfortunately, even despite “Crossfire’s” cancellation in 2004, the punditry has seemingly only become more pervasive in their polarizing invectiveness. The hoped salve of the Internet seems only to have enflamed it.

Stewart’s daily intended audience is the “70-80%” of Americans who consider themselves moderate pragmatists but who are invisible to media hacks, “probably because you have [stuff] to do”—not so much the silent majority as the “busy majority.”  So, in September, the promotional flyer for the “Rally to Restore Sanity” recruited “people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat.”Yes, most who attended the rally were politically liberal. But Stewart and his co-conspirator Stephen Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report,” a “Daily Show” spinoff, made no mention of specific issues or politicians, and while both of their shows are center-left politically, they are concerned more with processes than outcomes. Indeed, the theme of the Rally, and of Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” is less the singling out of individual pundits, than it is an accusation against the consuming punditry of the mainstream media establishment. A former Newsweek reporter reflected, “the Rally to Restore Sanity turns out to be history’s largest act of press criticism.”27 A Time reporter added, “And if it takes a comedian to make the point that politics can be more than a circus—well, that may be the biggest joke of all.”28

The challenge ahead, as the venerable David Halberstam once said, is “to take subjects which are seemingly boring and make them interesting and thereby show ordinary people their stake in something complex.”29 For all the limitations of the Rally, it proves some 215,000 Americans feel strongly enough to spend money on transportation and accommodations to demonstrate they acknowledge their stake. I If that’s not enough market share for private media firms, perhaps a more direct means of developing a stronger media is in strengthening the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) which, in return for licensing public airwaves, ostensibly requires networks to air educational programming on public affairs. After the 2004 elections, one F.C.C. commissioner reported that only 8% of local television newscasts in the preceding month “contained any coverage whatsoever of local races, including those for the House of Representatives,” but rather that the F.C.C. is “rubber-stamp[ing]” networks’ renewal applications “without any substantive review. Denials on public interest grounds are extraordinarily rare.”30 Certainly the government must not censor content, but the independent F.C.C. must refuse renewal licenses to networks, from CNN to the local NBC affiliate, that fail to educate the public on important issues.

We face serious challenges today, many of them the same challenges from previous decades that have only grown more imposing. We must work together to address them, to continue advancing the cause of a more perfect union. I believe we will find it difficult to engage substantive issues with those that disagree, but that it will prove  tremendously fulfilling and, ultimately, productive.

November 11, 2010

frontispiece and image: white noise (Wikicommons)

1. Jon Stewart at the Rally to Restore Sanity (Washington, D.C.: October 30, 2010).

2. Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816, as noted by Univ. of Virginia: Charles Yancey, 1816, as cited by the University of Virginia at http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1350.htm.

3. Howard Kurtz. Media Circus (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994): 12.

4. Jerry Knight, quoted in Kurtz, Media Circus: 55.

5. James Fallows. Breaking the News (New York: Vintage, 1997): 279-81, n. 82.

6. Ellen Goodman. Interview with Steve Talbot. “Why America Hates the Press,” Frontline. (October 22, 1996).

7. Diana C. Mutz and Byron Reeves. “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust,” American Political Science Review (2005): Vol. 99, No. 1: 1-15.

8. Deborah Tannen. The Argument Culture (New York: Ballantine, 1999): 28.

9. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “Press ‘Unfair, Inaccurate, and Pushy:’ Fewer Favor Media Scrutiny of Political Leaders,” (March 21, 1997): 6, 7.

10. Bill Carter. “CNN Will Cancel ‘Crossfire’ and Cut Ties to Commentator,” The New York Times (January 6, 2005).

11. Editorial. “Exit, Snarling,” The New York Times (January 9, 2005).

12. Barack H. Obama. Commencement Address to the Graduates of the Class of 2010, Ann Arbor, Michigan (May 1, 2010).

13. Prominent political figures have increasingly complained about worsening political polarization. Some of the most telling examples include: In 1991, Les Gelb, one of the deans of U.S. foreign policy, left Washington for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, chastising Washington as “largely indifferent to truth. Truth has been reduced to a conflict of press releases and a contest of handlers. Truth is judged not by evidence, but by theatrical performance,” quoted from “Foreign Affairs; Untruths…,” The New York Times (October 27, 1991) In 1997, an unprecedented number of U.S. Senators voluntarily announced their retirement from politics; political scientist Norm Ornstein, in an introduction to a collection of farewell essays written by thirteen of the fourteen, notes that these Senators, interestingly, were among the most distinguished of both parties, Senators who “have earned reputations for fairness, thoughtfulness, and moderation of manner. … One theme [of these essays] in particular” is “lament[ing] the increasing level of vituperation and partisanship that has permeated the atmosphere and debate in the Senate, and lament as well the decline of a spirit of compromise,” in: Norman J. Ornstein. “Introduction,” Lessons and Legacies (New York: Basic, 2002). And in October 2010, the Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program held its annual forum on the topic, “Governing Across the Divide,” convening prominent public officials to discuss civility in American public life.In the introduction to the discussion, moderator Bob Schieffer offered, “I have been in Washington now for 41 years, and I presently believe that we have a meanness that has settled over our politics today that is worse and runs deeper than I can recall in my time here in Washington,” (National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., October 5, 2010).

14. Stewart. September 29, 2004.

15. Walter Pincus. Interview with Bill Moyers. “Buying the War,” Bill Moyers Journal (April 25, 2007).

16. Jon Stewart. Interview with Dave Davies. “Fresh Air,” (July 22, 2005).

17. Ibid.

18. David M. Herszenhorn. “In Senate Health Care Vote, New Partisan Vitriol,” The New York Times (December 23, 2009).

19. Public Policy Polling. “Obama’s approval… increases.” Press Release (August 19, 2009).

20. Jon Stewart. “Anchor Management,” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (March 3, 2010).

21. Jon Stewart. Interview with Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers’ Journal (July 11, 2003).

22. Peter Jennings quoted in “Not Necessarily Not the News: Gatekeeping, Remediation, and The Daily Show,” Aaron McKain. The Journal of American Culture (2005): Vol. 28, No. 4: 415-30.

23. Rachel Smolkin. “What the Mainstream Media Can Learn From Jon Stewart,” American Journalism Review (2007): Vol. 29: 20, 22.

24. Geoffrey Baym. “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism,” Political Communication (2005): Vol. 22: 261.

25. The National Council of Teachers of English. “NCTE Orwell Award.” Article: 113240 (2005). Available at http://www.ncte.org/.

26. Sandra L. Borden and Chad Tew. “The Role of Journalist and the Performance of Journalism: Ethical Lessons From ‘Fake’ News (Seriously),” Journal of Mass Media Ethics (2007): Vol. 22: 305.

27. Gabriel Snyder, quoted in David Carr. “Rally To Shift The Blame,” The New York Times (November 1, 2010).

28. Richard Zoglin. “When Does a Fake Political Rally Turn Real?” in “Room for Debate” on The New York Times website (October 29, 2010).

29. David Halberstam, in James Fallows, 1997: 56-57, 277-278 n. 56.

30. Michael J. Copps. “The Price of Free Airwaves,” The New York Times (June 2, 2007).

Journalism

Max Currier

Max Currier is a recent graduate of Hamilton College, where he wrote his senior thesis on economic development in post-war Iraq.