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I Tried to Restore Sanity and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

BY Kenneth Rapoza

Stewart's call for reason is a lot like Beck's call for honor: Thousands of people gather to grieve the fact that the people they voted for have not delivered.

On the Mall

Funniest moment: When Colbert interrupts the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens as he sings Peace Train and introduces the crowd to the kind of train he would prefer to go on in these times. That's right: Ozzy Osborne's Crazy Train. The crowd erupted when Ozzy came on stage, looking like a grandfather vamp in ice blue teashades.

Worst moment: Stewart singing God Bless America. It wasn't that he was mocking middle-American patriotism; he wasn't. He simply cannot sing and the crowd went quiet.

Most Fearful sign: "Fear the Amish!"

Most Sane sign: "It's a sad day when our politics are comical and we must take our comics seriously."

Meet the Press

Best media elite moment: A 50-ish CNN reporter being filmed giving his take on the rally while wearing a Qwest telecom lanyard decorated with the red GOP elephant. Liberal media?

Best media blue-collar moment: An ABC cameraman bemoans the uselessness of media covering media to a colleague, then rushes with his camera to cover the arrival of Arianna Huffington, owner of online news magazine The Huffington Post.

Funniest press conference moment: An Extra! TV reporter asks Stewart a question about the rally. He immediately responds, "I am wearing a 100% cotton, black sweatshirt of the common department store variety."

—Kenneth Rapoza, who was proud to be a credentialed member of the media reporting on a media event that made fun of media.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—You have to hand it to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: they know exactly what they are doing, and their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall showed just that this past weekend.

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and the Colbert Report are the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In of the 21st Century, so if you don’t know the comedians’ shows, you “bet your bippy” you won’t get their punch lines or their political subtexts. And you might be persuaded by rally critics and write-off the rally as Comedy Central selling itself, or an egotistical liberal New Yorker trying to manipulate voters at the last minute–as if Stewart could somehow sway the midterm elections.

He can’t. The Democrats are in trouble, and it’s not President Barack Obama’s fault. It’s D.C. politics, Stewart would argue. No outsider can change it. Not Rand Paul. Not Glenn Beck and surely no left-leaning comedians, because it’s like asking a dozen or so college football players to change the way the National Football League plays and organizes football. Sure, Beck can rally his troops, but what will they get when they knock on the doors of their newly elected Republican congressmen? Trick or treat? My bet is that, like Charlie Brown in a ghost costume with one too many holes, they get a rock.

What Stewart and Colbert did successfully was put together an entertaining rally that looked a hell of a lot like a live three-hour special of Stewart and Colbert’s programs, with Stewart playing who he is (a witty, intelligent political and cultural critic) and Colbert channeling Bill O’Reilly, only slightly more jacked on anabolic jingo juice with a flare for wearing the American Flag. (He wears the flag, Colbert said in his fleece Stars & Stripes jacket, while left-wing Stewart, in the exact same coat, desecrates it.)

Stewart said the reason for the rally was to bring fans of both shows together for fun, with undertones of seriousness directed at Washington and the mainstream media. In fact, the rally evenhandedly criticized the mainstream media–from CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, to Ed Schultz on MSNBC–more than it did politicians or Tea Party voters.

“All I wanted here today was your presence, and I got it,” Stewart said, overlooking a massive and diverse crowd of an estimated 250,000 people, at the rally’s end. It was his Noam Chomsky moment, during which he seemed to speak from the heart about his disappointment in a TV journalism that has become a circus of competing rivals vying for the coveted ratings crown of nation’s Best Drama Queen:

“The press is our immune system and if it overreacts to everything, we get sicker. … Our ability to solve problems is actually reasonable. In the media, we hear about how we are polarized and our society is on the verge of collapse because we cannot work together. But we do. We work together every damn day. The only place we don’t is here,” he says, pointing back to the Capitol. “And on cable TV. Most Americans don’t live lives as solely Democrats or Republicans. Most people live their lives always arriving a little bit late to something they have to do but don’t want to do it. And they do it anyway through reasonable compromises we all make.”

Stewart’s call for reason was a lot like Beck’s call for honor, wasn’t it? A few hundred thousand people open to a certain political message (like “legalize pot” or “out with the sosialists”) gather in a form of group therapy to grieve the fact that the people they voted for have not delivered. And although Laugh-In fans eventually got what they wanted – out of Vietnam–it took years, and about 58,000 dead soldiers to get there. That TV show did not change D.C. politics. Since then, the news media has enlightened us less and less. We need comedians for that, now more than ever.

Earlier in the week I spoke to media critic and scholar Robert McChesney about the rally. He said something that stuck with me about the tragicomedy of American journalism. It was a story about Ralph Nader and the time he was running for president against John Kerry and George W. Bush. Michael Moore introduced Nader in Wisconsin. He was funny, hitting all the points a Nader voter would get, much in the way Stewart would.

And Nader says that it is too bad that liberal ideas are only taken seriously when you talk about them in a funny way. Otherwise, they are ridiculed as angry anti-Americanism. Nader talked about how in the Soviet Union underground dissidents reserved their harshest criticisms for Pravda–the propaganda press for the nation’s rulers–through comedy, because it was the only sane attack against an otherwise toxic official media culture.

Stewart, Beck and Sarah Palin can all complain about our “lamestream” media for different reasons: it’s too right-wing, it’s too left-wing. And their adherents can do the same at rallies and buy t-shirts about it. But it will get them nowhere. Odds are that Tea Party voters will be let down like the evangelical riff-raff under George W. Bush were let down. Just as Obama-voting Stewart fans have been let down by the Democrats.

What, then, is sanity? Will the Tea Party restore it? Will it destroy it? Forget the media’s take–it doesn’t make policy. It just promotes it, usually in the “right” direction, by providing legitimacy to any polarizing viewpoint that will get the media talking about itself. But when the country’s domestic policy is run by oil companies, finance and insurance, big pharma and military contractors, restoring sanity mainly depends on them–and the Congress they largely dominate–deciding to act for the collective good, rather than their own.

A longtime reporter and foreign correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, Kenneth Rapoza is an In These Times columnist who writes about the news business. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation and at Salon.com. He can be reached at ken@inthesetimes.com.

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