Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” drew one of the largest crowds in the recent history of Washington – packing 11 city blocks of the National Mall and spilling over into side streets that were nearly impassable – yet it was treated by the mainstream U.S. news media as something of an annoying joke.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times opted for front-page pictures of a handful of rally-goers pressed up against a fence, photos that could have been taken of a crowd numbering in the dozens rather than the hundreds of thousands.
There also was a great hesitancy to admit that Saturday’s rally was much larger than Glenn Beck’s highly touted event in August. Crowd estimates commissioned by CBS News and conducted by AirPhotosLive.com put Stewart’s rally at 215,000, compared to Beck’s 87,000.
However, the CBS estimate of Beck’s rally drew angry claims from the Right that Beck’s rally was many times larger than that. So, rather than face accusations of “liberal bias,” the mainstream media folded its tent and went along with the Right’s inflated estimates.
The opposite dynamic was at play for Stewart’s rally. Though it appeared to be at least several times larger than Beck’s, the U.S. news media shied away from any clear comparison. An NPR correspondent on Saturday timidly suggested that Stewart’s rally was perhaps “a bit” larger than Beck’s.
The New York Times article on Sunday observed that Stewart’s crowd stretched along the Mall “almost to the Washington Monument” but gave that distance as “several long blocks” rather than actually counting the blocks.
Since the rally stage was set up along Third Street and since the Mall was filled with rally-goers at least to 14th Street, the Times might have done the math and told its readers that “several” in this case meant 11.
I also believe that a true estimate of the crowd on Saturday easily exceeded the CBS figure of 215,000. In the area where I was standing on Saturday, near Eighth Street, people were packed in more densely than I had experienced even during Barack Obama’s Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.
I asked a girl who had climbed up a tree what it looked like behind us and she said people were crowded in as far as she could see back toward the Washington Monument.
But people in my area and farther back had trouble following what was happening on stage. The sound system and the TV monitors were set up for a crowd that would reach back only to about Seventh Street.
That meant that much of the crowd could only pick up bits and pieces of the dialogue and could see little of the visual gags onstage. There were recurring chants of "louder, louder."
Jon Stewart and his co-host Stephen Colbert did okay by expressing their semi-serious comedy routines in clear, short sound bites, but others – like “Father Guido Sarducci” in his “benediction” – were inaudible.
That led to a significant portion of the crowd peeling off and seeking other ways to follow the proceedings. And that is one of the reasons I think the CBS estimate of Saturday’s crowd was too low. Much of the crowd dispersed onto nearby city streets.
One friend who couldn’t hear or see the onstage proceedings told me he found a crowded bar where the flat-screen TVs were all dedicated to the rally. A group of European parliamentarians, in the United States to observe Tuesday’s elections, gave up trying to shove their way onto the Mall and retreated to the nearby Newseum to watch the event on a large TV with other frustrated rally-goers.
I also grew frustrated – unable to see or hear much – so I began maneuvering off to the side streets that feed the Mall. Even after departing the Mall, I found the crowd densely packed on those side streets.
In my decades of covering Washington rallies and events, I have never witnessed anything quite like the crowd that attended Stewart’s gathering. There was a touch of Woodstock, where an inadequate sound system and a much larger than expected crowd also made the event itself – rather than the onstage performances – the bigger story (although I saw no drug use or nudity at the rally on Saturday).
Many rally-goers amused each other with their own hand-made ironic signs. (My personal favorite was a sign about the bewitching anti-masturbationist Christine O’Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware. The sign read, “Whenever I see Christine, I want to touch myself.”)
But the mainstream U.S. news media may have blinded itself to this populist aspect of the rally because many major news organizations forbade their staffers from attending (unless on official assignment), despite the fact that the rally was overtly non-partisan.
The news outlets apparently feared that some right-wing anti-journalism group might snap a picture of a news employee enjoying the music of Ozzy Osbourne or Sheryl Crow and that would then raise questions about “objectivity.”
Fear is especially palpable at NPR after its ham-handed firing of Juan Williams, Fox News' favorite "liberal" punching bag. Terrified that the Republicans will punish the radio network by zeroing out its federal funding, NPR was among the news outlets that barred their employees from going to the Mall. (For his part, Williams landed on his feet with a $2 million contract from Fox News.)
Beyond ducking the competing crowd numbers and making no effort to understand the significance of hundreds of thousands of Americans rallying “to restore sanity,” the news media also trivialized the substance of the event.
The New York Times article started off describing the rally as “part circus,” although I didn’t notice any roaring animals or trapeze artists. NPR's correspondent depicted Stewart’s closing speech as “strident.”
Yet far from “strident,” Stewart’s speech struck me as quite reasonable; indeed, it was an ode to reasonableness. He praised Americans who – despite their political, religious and other differences – work cooperatively together to get things done.
Stewart used a metaphor of drivers merging together into a narrow tunnel going from New York City to New Jersey. Though one car may have an Obama sticker on it and another an NRA sticker, he said the drivers normally show politeness – “you go, then I’ll go, you go, then I’ll go” – as the car lanes become one.
Stewart reserved his sharpest criticism for the press and its tendency to spread more heat than light and to exaggerate dangers.
“We live now in hard times, not end times,” Stewart said. “Unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-onator 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 and illuminate problems heretofore unseen, or it can use its magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous-flaming-ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”
In the face of this criticism, some in the mainstream press got huffy, much as they did in response to Colbert’s satire of the Washington press corps at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006.
On Monday, New York Times business columnist David Carr complained that Stewart was treating the press as a convenient whipping boy.
“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.”
But the truth is that the mainstream media is guilty as charged here. The U.S. news media has not acted as a courageous Fourth Estate that was granted special constitutional protections so it could pierce through high-level wrongdoing and keep the voters informed.
Rather than a source of illumination and transparency, the news media – for the most part – has become one more brick in the wall.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledged on Sunday the press has been piling on President Barack Obama this year much like it pounded Al Gore before Election 2000. “We in the news media were tough on Mr. Gore, magnifying his weaknesses, and that fed into a general disdain” that led to George W. Bush’s gaining the White House, Kristof wrote.
In fact, the media’s hazing of Gore – including misquoting him and then holding him up to ridicule for the misquotes – was an important factor in why Gore’s victory margin was slim enough, both nationally and in Florida, for Bush to flip the outcome with the help of Republicans on the Supreme Court. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
That pivotal election, in turn, set the stage for today’s calamities, including the near 10 percent unemployment resulting from Bush’s bubble-and-bust economics. The flood of secret campaign donations now washing away the last vestiges of American democracy was made possible by Bush’s right-wing appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even today, by refusing to apply any objective standards in measuring crowd sizes, the media has perpetuated this campaign year’s dominant narrative – that a massive Tea Party movement of angry voters represents a tidal wave that will restore Republicans to power.
The major news media and the cable-TV pundits have been flogging this narrative since March of 2009, just weeks after Obama became President.
Supposedly, there are these vast numbers of insurgent middle-class Americans – fired up by the Tea Party – who are determined to punish Democrats for passing any stimulus spending at all, for approving any new regulations for Wall Street, for enacting any health-care reform, for favoring any plan to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, and for opposing tax breaks for the richest Americans.
A favorite media explanation for this phenomenon has been to blame Obama for failing to communicate better. Yet, the media seems oblivious to the fact that its superficial treatment of these pressing national issues and the excessive coverage of Tea Party complaints have been key factors in the expected Republican landslide on Tuesday.
The appearance of hundreds of thousands of Americans on the National Mall on Saturday – far outnumbering the crowd that attended Glenn Beck’s rally in August – represented one last chance for the news media to correct the imbalance of its coverage.
There also was a chance to discuss what it means when truly vast numbers of Americans think that the U.S. media/political process has gone insane, that they are so concerned about this public madness that hundreds of thousands traveled to the Washington Mall, squeezed through a daunting throng of humanity and strained to hear Stewart and associates.
Instead, by trivializing what happened on Saturday, the U.S. press corps reminded many progressive and middle-of-the-road Americans why they distrust the mainstream news media, which they see as pandering to the Right.
Though clearly satirical, the “rally to restore sanity” was downright serious. But that was a point the news media missed.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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