It took nearly three hours to get to it, but Jon Stewart did have a point Saturday at the rally/concert/comedy show he organized on the National Mall, which drew a crowd estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000.
In a blizzard of rapid-fire video clips, Stewart and Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert, who was a co-star of the event, showed a succession of TV talking heads excoriating, labeling and condemning their political and ideological opponents. The package was heavy on Fox News’ Glenn Beck and conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh, but also showed MSNBC’s Ed Schultz several times, as well as Keith Olbermann, of the same network.
“The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problem. But it’s existence makes solving them that much harder,” Stewart said at the close of the three-hour event. “The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we get sicker, and perhaps eczema.”
Olbermann responded immediately on Twitter, dismissing Stewart’s montage as overly simplistic.
“It wasn’t a big shark but Jon Stewart jumped one just now with the ‘everybody on Thr [sic] cable is the same’ naiveté,” Olbermann wrote.
Stewart also took a shot at the political system, but only in the vaguest terms, saying that most Americans “work together to get things done every damn day” and adding, as he pointed to the U.S. Capitol building behind the stage, “the only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.”
But that was about as political as the day got. And so in the end, Stewart came to say much the same thing he has been saying for years, lamenting the hyper reactivity and superficiality of much of the media. One other subtle political subtext was that this complaint is one that top White House officials, and President Obama himself, often voice themselves.
Coming just three days before a midterm election where the Democratic Party is expected to suffer significant losses, the Stewart and Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” was expected by some to have a more overt political tone.
But like Beck’s own rally at the end of August, which also drew a crowd in the hundreds of thousands, the message was essentially apolitical. Beck sought to call Americans to greater religious devotion and morality. Stewart, in his comments, criticized media and a cheapened political discourse.
There were other parallels between the Beck and Stewart rallies. Like Beck, Stewart and Colbert gave out medals as awards. Stewart’s medals were for “reasonableness” while Colbert’s were, in his typical satirical style, for “fear.”
And there were hints of encouragement for better behavior as well, though of a more coastal, urban, irreligious flavor than the faith-based approach used by Beck. At one point, Stewart showed a video of Steven Slater, the airline steward who in August threw a tantrum over a rude traveler, opened the escape hatch of the plane and slid down the inflatable slide.
“I could have found a more productive way to express my frustration,” Slater said on the video. “Next time I’ll try to work things through before losing my cool.”
Prior to his closing remarks, it was unclear whether Stewart intended to convey any message at all. He and Colbert did a series of ironic dialogues and skits, in between musical acts by a number of performers: The Roots, Jeff Tweedy, Ozzy Osbourne, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock.
Stewart did court controversy by inviting Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, to perform a song. In 1989, Yusuf made comments that appeared to be in support of the edict from Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini that author Salman Rushdie be killed for writing the book, “The Satanic Verses.” Yusuf later denied doing so (read the background here).
Stewart, at one point during the event, spoke to the current controversy over recent comments by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that “Muslims killed us” during the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“Some people who happen to be of Muslim faith attacked us. But there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world,” Stewart said, arguing that most Muslims do not support terrorism.