Porta-potties. Oh the horrible irony. This Saturday’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was billed by Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, as a rally “for some nice people to get together for fun… and some great conversation.” In opposition to the incendiary environment that is plaguing our politics and media, Stewart is moving his battle out from behind his desk to the National Mall. Unfortunately, the same politics and media that feed Stewart ever more absurd material will wipe the slate of any hope of “Restoring Sanity.”
Perhaps the most apparent indication of this inevitable event is the media’s recent port-a-potty prophecy. Did you know that an order of 508 port-a-potties suggests that event organizers are expecting upwards of 150,000? Neither did I. (In case you were wondering, approximately 400 are stand-alone, while 50 are handicapped accessible.) One can’t help but smile (or cry) after stumbling across the numerous articles that relay this “vital” information. Indeed, it seems odd that the media covering the “Rally to Restore Sanity” are counting toilets with bated breath. (Not to mention Larry King donating a porta-potty to Stewart on-air).
The rally, which was originally dubbed the “March of the Reasonable,” is arguably the culmination of Stewart’s surprising transformation into a cultural and political icon over the past eleven years as host of The Daily Show. While Stewart reaches only about 1.8 million people a night, his show continues to climb in the ratings with each quarter. The third quarter of this year saw The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report claim the top two spots in late night television among 18-34 year-old adults.
Despite the relatively modest reach of The Daily Show, Stewart himself has become a fixture of the political and news media landscape. Last year, in a Time poll, which asked who the most trusted newscaster in America is, Stewart garnered 44% of the vote. His show’s election coverage has been equally successful on the journalistic front, winning two Peabody’s–one in 2000 and another in 2004. Despite the slew of awards for both serious and comical achievements, Stewart remains adamant that what The Daily Show “does” is not news.
“Of course, our show is obviously at a disadvantage compared to the many news sources that we’re competing with… at a disadvantage in several respects. For one thing, we are fake. They are not,” Stewart said.
Although Stewart would prefer to distance himself from the “real business of journalism,” he continuously injects himself into the business. From criticisms of CNN’s “Crossfire” to CNBC’s Jim Cramer and Mad Money to Fox News’ The Glenn Beck Show, Stewart has become an increasingly important media critic as the media has become more and more opinionated.
In an interview with New York Magazine last month, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams summed up Stewart’s relevance in the current climate, saying, ”Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism. Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”
Now Stewart is using his cultural power to rebuke both politicians and the media on the steps of Lincoln Memorial. Yet, there appears little hope that the message of “sanity” will cut through the very thing it is attempting to battle–the absurd amount of media malady and political grandstanding that rules our information environment.
In our new media environment, the rush of information has reached unimagined proportions. With Ted Turner’s invention of a 24-hour news channel, the news industry realized that it had to talk–and it had to talk alot to fill up 24-hours. With the rise of the blogosphere and traditional media online, news organization no longer had to only fill up 24-hours, but had to fill up the infinite space on their respective websites. And here is the problem, no news organization can ever run out of space on the Internet. They can always create more. Talk more. Opinion more.
And that’s exactly what news organizations do today. They talk Rick Sanchez, Glenn Beck, Juan Williams, Virginia Thomas, Shirley Sherrod (remember her?), and Christine O’Donnell. Each story is new until it is immediately old. On to the next story. On to the next hook. On to the next “big thing,” until it is not the next “big thing” anymore.
So, the media will cover Stewart’s rally. It will talk porta-potties, and it will try to find an interesting, but nonetheless irrelevant angle. (How about: Does selling merchandise for charity ruin the rally? Is Stewart a “communist tyrant?” Are you on Team Colbert or Team Stewart?) They will chew the rally over for a few days and then move on. In the end, they will never realize that the rally is just “for some nice people to get together for fun… and some great conversation,” and even if it turns out to be more influential than that, the media will surely not notice. Indeed, they will be too busy being irrelevant.