Thoughts on the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

The crowd leaned slightly to the left.

I spent the weekend at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear with my sister in Washington DC. While I don’t usually talk too much about politics on Overthinking It, I figured the event warranted some discussion, because, in addition to being politics, it’s pop culture, it’s important, and it’s illustrative of its cultural moment. Like Lee did for ComicCon, I’ll add more, better pictures in a future entry — expect more talk about my experiences here, because it was a really complex event and fun to think and talk about.

I want to start with Jon Stewart’s keynote speech, because it’s packaged in such a way that it’s easy to talk about, which will create the impression in history that it was also the most important part of the rally, so let’s go with that reading for the moment (thanks to chapterofmylife for posting in good quality, if it stays up long enough for everybody to see it):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ntvifshfWg

Stewart has long ground this specific axe as his most urgent and sincerely political position — through the 24 news cycle and journalotainment (my word, but if he can use “conflictinator,” indulge me) the press manufactures alarm and choreographs conflict while overlooking substance and responsibility. The press serves an essential function in a democracy — Stewart refers to it as our “immune system.” So, when the press falls asleep at the wheel or turns on its duties (one could say when it “shirks” its duties, but in my opinion this ascribes less systematic malevolence and corruption to the much of the press than is accurate), the results are bad for the country and the world.

It’s the same thing Stewart talked about way back on the now-defunct-but-quaint-by-comparison-to-today’s-propoganda-horrors Crossfire six years ago, when he came into his own as a political force:

More on Stewart’s avowed politics, the politics of the rally, and the politics of art and festivals (because, despite not being seen as such by many, this was a comedy and arts festival), after the jump —

The uphill battle

Jon Stewart and his posse hosted a big rally where they got people together for reasons they don’t entirely understand. This much is clear. It is also clear that Stewart’s most deliberate intention in all of this – the fire in his belly that got this whole thing going – was to demonstrate opposition to the destructive tendencies and dereliction of duty in contemporary popular media. Unfortunately, and I’d wager as a comedian Stewart understands this, because comedians understand more than most the futile demands of the sane mind — he almost certainly isn’t going to win.

This is very important for how the rally functioned and what I think it means, so I’ll go into it a bit, at risk of being too political. I apologize if my ranting is discourteous to any of our readers in their own political commitments.

Actually, I’ll remark on that for a second, because this was very obvious at the rally if you actually went rather than read the half-pre-scripted coverage in places like the New York Times. This was very much not a Democratic rally. Stewart never talked about the midterm elections. The big guests were not politicians, but musicians. There was no call to action involving getting out the vote. There wasn’t even an endorsement of one political party over another by the people running the rally (the attendees, well, we’ll get to that). Anybody who expected this to be some sort of October Surprise for the Congressional Democrats must have been sorely disappointed.

The media organization bashed the most by the rally itself was not Fox News but NPR, for its overreaction to Juan Williams’ rude but harmless comments (more than one person I talked to found the references to it more than a little conspicuous — so it isn’t just me).

Media outlets widely seen as liberal were given the first Medal of Fear by Steve Colbert for their unwillingness to cover the rally so as not to appear biased, which casts light on the media outlets’ own self-conscious political machinations that interfere with their objectivity and ability to do their jobs.

If the rally was driven by Democrats, it wasn’t very nice to its supposed friends.

I think the issues Stewart and Colbert discussed are somewhat party-neutral. Yes, there is conspicuous alignment between Republican leadership and the media outlets it controls, but that leadership doesn’t speak for all Republicans, and not all the people voting Republican on Tuesday are willing to call themselves Republicans. It’s unfortunate what will happen to the agenda of fiscal responsibility once the election is over and the Republican semi-dependents realize the people who control their party aren’t really very conservative in their economic and fiscal policies, but, hey, you can’t blame them for trying to change things, and metadiscourse doesn’t inherently prefer one tax policy over another.

If I were a conservative — though I confess I’m not on balance, even if I am on some issues — I think I’d want a free and independent press that felt responsibility for accurate reporting and some dignity and perspective rather than self-destructive, nonstop myopic hysteria.

I’d want to know what was really happening so I knew how to adjust to it and help formulate and work toward constructive, responsible, low-cost solutions  that didn’t impinge on people’s liberties too much, or so that I could work toward solutions to problems through the institutions I believed were appropriate for addressing them. The need for a free press isn’t diminished whether you prefer social policy to charity or the military to the State Department – it’s something the members of both parties should be interested in, and a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma, where it has become a dominant strategy to destroy it that has resulted in a net negative for everybody.

(The previous example, of course, relies on the extent to which knowing what is “actually happening” is possible, but seeing that I am a conservative in this scenario, I’m probably not going to invoke Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation while watching the news).

Back to Stewart’s uphill battle

Okay,  so, we’re still talking about Stewart’s speech at the rally here (writing thousands of words about 15 minutes of a daylong rally, yeah that’s overthinking), and really just the salient points at the heart of it. The two-party system isn’t put forth as a solution. The media certainly isn’t put forth as a solution. Stewart doesn’t say “keep listening to me and watching my show and I will fix this.” Stewart articulates a problem, but the solutions he proposes are the sort that people don’t tend to do on their own — like being good friends and neighbors, turning off their TVs and going outside, and calming down and being adults about things. It’s like telling somebody they really should eat healthily — yeah, they should, and some will, but most won’t, because the economic fundamentals are too strong.

The rally isn’t going to solve Stewart’s problem with the press — it’s not even going to come close to solving the problem. The economic fundamentals are too heavily stacked against it. The profit motive for media organizations to keep going the way things are dwarfs what they can make just producing news. They can make a lot more money — for their own books, for their own pockets, and through various complex business relationships — selling de facto editorial control of news outlets to private companies (that will turn profits by influencing government policy) than they can make selling time to the Pine-Sol lady and the Scooter Store.

The older media model.

It turns out the market has been undervaluing control of the government (mostly in terms of short-term payouts in taxes and contracts – not really thinking about the long-term health of the economy, because hey that stuff is CRAZY, amirite?) at a time when media is relatively cheap and easy to produce and distribute and media professionals are suffering a ton of underemployment, a big influx of new skilled workers, a nosedive in the cost of basic technology and downward wage pressure. These sorts of adjustments – where prices move and shift buying and selling patterns, are notoriously difficult to fight or reverse. The markets are very very powerful.

As a result, formally private institutions that are virtual arms of government entities heavily influence what is said on the news through a series of think tanks, astroturf groups and PR organizations. Those same organizations overtly fund the television stations and other media outlets by becoming a major source of ad revenue (one of the few growing ones). In turn, being free of the responsibility to produce news in line with journalistic integrity (which is expensive) lets them operate with skeleton crews of underpaid staff while making only sensationalist stories, which people will gravitate toward watching.

It’s win win win win … until it’s lose.

To give you a sense for the extent of this media/political machine Stewart is calling out, they even channel funding and influence to sites like Overthinking It through institutions like Google Ads, which we can’t control and have no better alternative to at our scale and level of operations (with our whopping zero full-time employees and reliance on donations to keep our servers going even with advertising all over the place).

For example, while the people at OTI are of varying political persuasions, we all have gay friends (mutual ones, whom we pretty much all know and care about their rights), and we didn’t want to show you ads that tell you to oppose gay marriage or be scared of gay people back when Prop 8 was kicking around. But we didn’t really have much of a choice – we can’t censor the ads on our sites, and there are no other advertisers that work for us at our current level of sophistication and readership.

The people that control the media, whom Jon Stewart opposes, make us show them, so we have to. Thankfully, our mandatory political advertisers don’t really care if we insult them to their faces; we’re not important enough. So, when a particularly pernicious issue comes up, we come out and say on the site – “Hey guys, we’re sorry about that one, don’t pay attention to it, those people are jerks” and that makes me a little more comfortable with the whole rotten business.

Still, every time I see another one of those goddamned push polls on the site I grind another layer of enamel off my molars.

But yeah, I understand why Jon Stewart hates this kind of media, but I don’t think this rally is really going to do much to stop it, or even slow it down. And I don’t think that’s why we all gathered on the mall in Washington, either.

13 Comments on “Thoughts on the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”

  1. hanncommander #

    Tomorrow’s going to be a pretty epic day for ‘Merica.

     
  2. John Perich #

    And hey, really, the press isn’t that different from how it’s always worked.

    You say this, but you spend the bulk of the article arguing against it. Which is where I make my chief objection. You talk about “dereliction of duty” and “pervasive malice and corruption” in the press. From this, I’d get the impression that journalism in the early 21st century in America is somehow distinctly different – in tone or motive – than journalism in the 20th, 19th or 18th centuries. None of my (admittedly cursory) knowledge of American history suggests that that’s the case.

    The 24-hour news stream has changed the volume of journalism, perhaps. And when you crank the volume up high enough, even Vivaldi gets ugly. But I don’t know that you make the case that America has entered a New Era of Irresponsible Reporting. And I don’t think Stewart has made the case, either.

     
    • fenzel #

      Yeah, it isn’t really that clear-cut. Certainly we can see developments taht happen in real time that show things getting worse than they might otherwise be. But it’s unclear how much of this is actually new and how much of it is just having a greater understanding of what was always there.

      One of the important distinctions is that, even if the overall function, the high-level view, has similarities, the methodology is DEFINITELY new.

      Like, Fox News is run by a Nixon strategist who has multiple presidential candidates directly on his payroll and shills for fundraisers during its news broadcasts. If GE has historically influenced NBC News to serve its interests, it didn’t do so in this manner – maybe calls were made that killed stories, maybe producers and executives had conflicts of interest.

      And to the extent that news reports were stilted or falsified in the past, it seems from memory at least that they were done in a more consistent manner that paid more deference to an idea of a correspondence theory of truth – but again, cognitive dissonance may be playing a role there. It’s hard to say.

      But it was unacceptable until very recently to claim on a major TV news outlet that the President of the United States is an enemy sleeper agent conspiring to conduct paramilitary attacks on his own people, which is fairly common in the whole “terrorist-question-mark” discourse.

      So something has definitely changed. The money situation is certainly very bad — individual corporations didn’t used to have the political clout to run campaigns that changed state constitutions (consider the hysterical misinformation around this summer’s California Prop 16, which was all funded by one company through a series of intermediaries and heavily advertised through media outlets that didn’t balk at the rampant misinformation).

      Things on par with the Watergate scandal are at this point fairly commonplace, because the technology has made it a lot easier to do things like make enemies lists, spy on political enemies, record clandestine communications and funnel money in and out of slush funds – and the more widely proliferation of information has made “cover ups” business as usual, to the point where it is less common for something to _not_ be covered up by a vaguely aligned private political organization than for it to be so.

      It isn’t clear exactly what or to what extent things have changed. One of the things the Bush administration worked very hard at doing was preventing people from finding out by classifying lots and lots of documents that would otherwise be public. We won’t really know until long after a lot of the people currently involved are dead – so it’s probably a project for our children and grandchildren.

      But to say that you have to demonstrate how things have changed exactly in order to sound a call about it is setting too high a bar — this isn’t a logical argument where things must be proved, we’re not prosecuting anybody — it’s a cultural argument where things must be framed and articulated and ideas must catch on.

      If you don’t think the economics of the media work this way, then great. Try to change it and see if it works. Work within a different model – try to run a news station and never invite on somebody from a think tank as a special “analyst” to deliver fabricated hysteria. The economics of the business get very difficult, but I have no proof you can’t do it.

       
      • fenzel #

        And yeah, one of things we all owe it to ourselves to consider is that 19th century American history in particular is _really_ shady. A whole lot of stuff happened then during the conquest and economic development of the North American continent that would not pass muster today. A lot of bad stuff went down that informed a lot of policies that made things better and are now being dismantled because people have forgotten history.

        But yeah, there are cycles that span hundreds of years, and considering a return to a certain point in a cycle as both something new and more of the same simultaneously is reasonable from a cultural perspective, depending on what you’re talking about and why.

         
      • John Perich #

        Like, Fox News is run by a Nixon strategist who has multiple presidential candidates directly on his payroll and shills for fundraisers during its news broadcasts. If GE has historically influenced NBC News to serve its interests, it didn’t do so in this manner – maybe calls were made that killed stories, maybe producers and executives had conflicts of interest.

        Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst started a war between the U.S. and Spain. Put anyone at the head of a giant corporation that makes its money off of “copies sold” or “viewers tuned in” and I am not convinced the results will be different.

        it was unacceptable until very recently to claim on a major TV news outlet that the President of the United States is an enemy sleeper agent conspiring to conduct paramilitary attacks on his own people, which is fairly common in the whole “terrorist-question-mark” discourse.

        Sure, because 24 hour cable news is very recent. You should see some of the slurs that Adams and Jefferson lobbied at each other – in the press, not just cheap pamphlets – when running for President.

        The money situation is certainly very bad — individual corporations didn’t used to have the political clout to run campaigns that changed state constitutions

        First, if you’re referring to the Citizens United ruling as the “didn’t used to” watershed, then (A) has the ability of well-connected corporations to funnel money to candidates ever really, I mean really, been that curtailed? and (B) given the case in question, which was whether or not a small group of private citizens had the First Amendment right to release an unflattering documentary of Hillary Clinton, the SCOTUS decision was (to my civil liberty loving eyes) unambiguously the right call. As in, why is it even debatable? “Corporations” aren’t just fat cats in boardrooms. The ACLU has been hindered from running ads by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

        If Citizens United was the last thing standing between massive corporate control of elections and a free America, then that means campaign finance laws were drafted incorrectly to begin with.

        to say that you have to demonstrate how things have changed exactly in order to sound a call about it is setting too high a bar — this isn’t a logical argument where things must be proved, we’re not prosecuting anybody — it’s a cultural argument where things must be framed and articulated and ideas must catch on.

        That’s not how I meant it; I apologize for framing it that way. My objection wasn’t that Stewart was making an insufficient case or that he was ascribing false charges to the mainstream media. My objection was that he was wrong.

        If Stewart wants either a more civil media or a media more driven by a relentless search for truth than by a desire to champion an agenda, he doesn’t want a “return” to anything. He wants a sea change in human affairs. He wants a revolution akin to the early Christian fathers, or the Oneida communes, or human colonies on the Moon, only this time he wants it to work.

        I’m all for it! And I mean that sincerely. But he needs to get his message straight first. Step one: stop working for Viacom.

         
        • Howard Y #

          I think that the issue with Citizens United isn’t the original case, with the Hilary Clinton video. The problem was that Chief Justice Roberts expanded the scope of the case to arguing whether to overturn Austin v Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v FEC. Also, I find the concept of corporate personhood ridiculous (and it might have been wrongly decided in the first place).

           
  3. Tom #

    I tried to go to the rally on Saturday, but was completely stymied by the crowds. I go to the National Mall pretty regularly, and at least walk or run by most of the major events, and this thing was massive. Within seconds, I was surrounded by people 20 feet deep, and by the time I decided to just watch from home, it took 15 minutes to get back out to the street. (By contrast, you could safely and easily run through the periphery of both the Beck and labor rallies this fall with a small amount of people-dodging.)

    Anyway, from my couch the main thrust of the rally was the modern analogy to a medieval morality play. Stewart personified “reason,” and Colbert “fear.” And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, well, Kareem Abdul-Jabar. (It seems especially appropriate, since after Airplane!, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s defining characteristic is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-ness, for lack of a better term.)

    Colbert was what we expect from Colbert (the character, not the performer), but I usually think of Stewart as being a commentator, not a character. Saturday put the lie to that – he’s a Nick Carraway or a Nathan Zuckerman, not a third-person narrator. As theater, it was interesting, and it definitely had a message, even if the message was simply “chill out.” Does sanity come from reason alone, or by works of reasonableness? I think Stewart is a Protestant in this regard; I wonder if the audience mistook him for a Catholic.

    Part of me wishes I had made my way into the crowd a bit more – from the small piece I saw of the live event, the experience of attending was very different from watching it on TV. But I’m glad I saw both sides, even with the imperfect lens of the camera forcing my eyes on the stage, instead of the community attending.

     
    • Patrick Perez #

      You wrote “(It seems especially appropriate, since after Airplane!, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s defining characteristic is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-ness, for lack of a better term.)”

      I think you must have mistaken him for someone else.

      Patrick Perez

       
  4. Howard Y #

    I was getting psyched up because I thought Stewart was going to bring out Bruce Springsteen, but then it was Kid Rock and I was sad.

    I’m still turning the Rally over in my head. I was at a Halloween party that night, and we were talking about it for most of the time. There were some epic signs, though, including some physics ones (I’m a physics grad student)!

     
    • Tom #

      I had exactly the same reaction to the Kid Rock intro. “I bet it’s Springsteen. It’s gotta be Springsteen. It’s totally Springsteen. . . . Bwaaaaa?”

       
      • Chris #

        Same here. I was particularly surprised to see it be Kid Rock, because I never saw his career evolve beyond being the “Bawitdaba” and “Cowboy” guy.

        Also, with regards to the “Train” medley, I was disappointed to not see the band Train make an appearance. (Note: I was not actually disappointed by this.)

        Additionally, as a Detroit Tigers fan, I was happy to see an Armando Galarraga appearance. You were robbed, Armando!

        Clearly, I was approaching this more as a pop culture and entertainment event than some sort of political event. I was, and am, well aware that this rally wasn’t going to change anything, because this sort of thing never does, so the best anybody could hope for was for the event to be entertaining and if it had a good message that’s a nice bonus, even if it was thoroughly preaching to the choir.

         
  5. Lisa #

    I find it interesting that this post and the comments seem to focus on more examples of the problems with media from the conservative side. Fox News, for example, gets a lot of grief from liberals, who see it as the penultimate example of media bias. As someone who’s more conservative (though with a few places I step over the aisle), I have for many years considered a lot of the media to be biased, just in the other direction. Perhaps liberals just didn’t notice, since they agreed with it. I remember my first shocking feeling about 10 years ago when, after moving to the DC area, I started reading my first copy of the Washington Post. I was so surprised by the casual way very simple articles vilified conservative positions or candidates with no supporting facts to back it up and by the way the Post would spin an article that should have been factual into an argument supporting a liberal position.

    So then I started wondering–is this newspaper just insanely biased, or did I just not notice my Utah paper’s bias, because I agreed with it? (To be honest, I think it’s a bit of both.) No, I don’t agree with everything said on Fox News, but I don’t think they’re the only news outlet spouting theories and political stances as fact. It’s just that they’re doing it in the opposite direction of the other outlets and the more outspoken liberals. Rather than actually encourage a dialog between the disparate political parties, though, this has simple spurred more firm clutching at one party’s ideals over another’s. Drives me absolutely batty.

    Sadly, as you posit, I think that any call for people to stop being stupid, to actually think about things, to demand responsibility, isn’t going to work. I don’t know if people really don’t want those things, or if they’re too caught up in the maelstrom, or what, but I know very few people I can have a rational conversation about politics with. This includes both my liberal and conservative friends. I admit part of that might be my tendency to play devil’s advocate, but when people start spouting things like “Providing dinner through schools for inner city kids is just one step away from the State raising kids,” I just have to say something!

    “The need for a free press isn’t diminished whether you prefer social policy to charity or the military to the State Department — it’s something the members of both parties should be interested in, and a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma, where it has become a dominant strategy to destroy it that has resulted in a net negative for everybody.”

    I agree with this so whole-heartedly!

    “(The previous example, of course, relies on the extent to which knowing what is “actually happening” is possible, but seeing that I am a conservative in this scenario, I’m probably not going to invoke Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation while watching the news).”

    Actually, just because you’re a conservative doesn’t mean you might not think about that. It’d just be if you weren’t an Overthinker. ;)

    Anyway, interesting article! I’m still glad I didn’t go to the rally, ’cause that many people would probably have given me my first panic attack, but I am interested in this sort of dialog!

     
  6. StephenR #

    Typical media bias is not the issue that Stewart is most concerned about. The biggest problem today is the escalating use of Orwellian propaganda tactics by certain news media outlets for the sole purpose of creating fear and anger, e.g. going so far as to convince 40-50% of the members of an entire political party that the President wasn’t born in the US, despite absolute proof that he was (and not a shred of evidence to support any intelligent belief to the contrary).

    This kind of irrational thinking by millions of people en masse can become extremely dangerous, and is a hell of a lot different than the “truth-depending-on-your-point-of-view” opinion politics to which we’ve become accustomed.

    Notice how it’s only when we have a BLACK president that he has his very citizenship questioned? This kind of propaganda conveniently targets those whom already harbor a racial bias, and it is used to convince these people that the President is not “one of us”. It’s classic self vs. other psychology, and it’s the kind of thing that elicits the primal emotions because it represents a more primitive, irrational view of the world.

    Those individuals propagating these kinds of scare tactics will simply tell whatever lies necessary to make people angry and/or fearful. The more outrageous the lie, the more afraid the people will become, and thus the more easily they can be manipulated. This has become virtually the entire playbook of an increasing number of political “personalities”, and it’s precisely how Goebbels described the Nazi propaganda tactics that worked so well in the 1930’s.

    And once they gained power, they just labeled anyone who opposed their behavior as unpatriotic.

    Sound familiar?