After the Deluge, the Media
By Al Giordano
Today is Election Day in the United States and all activities should properly begin with a G and be followed by O, T and V. You know that already.
And between phone calls, door knocks, and shuttling people to the polls, and especially in those hours between polls closing and when the results come in, I wanted to give y’all something to think and talk about that - no matter what the election results will be - is going to fast become a long overdue national (and international) public conversation.
As Jon Stewart put it so well on Saturday, the real threat to democracy stands naked before us all: It’s the media.
There is nothing threatening about a free press, which is a wonderful thing, always. But the bought-and-paid-for “news organizations,” an entire system of them, the ones with that permanent “for rent” sign pasted to their foreheads - including the ones that claim to be on our side - now must be identified as Public Enemy number one, and dispensed with as such.
Elections come and go every couple or few years, depending on your country of residence, and entire industries are devoted to what Pat Cadell presciently labeled in 1976 as The Permanent Campaign. In fact, the considerable booty received by political consultants, pollsters, staffers, party bureaucrats and others in that genre is dwarfed by the financial rewards each election brings to the commercial media (and, sorry, bloggers that depend on advertising are also part of the commercial media, let’s end the charade right here and now). Most of the money raised for political candidates is spent on TV, radio, newspaper and Internet ads, as well as putting on the free show that media organizations can produce as “news” and use to rent your attention to advertisers.
Which is why I was, before it happened, skeptical about Saturday’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Washington Mall produced by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I enjoy both those guys and their TV shows well enough when I get the chance to see them. But after a couple years in which the so called “alternative media” – from “liberal” MSNBC hosts to “netroots” bloggers to the Huffington Post to state-run media that claim to be leftist or socialist or whatever in parts of Latin America and the world – have proved themselves to be as ugly and snarling and petty (and reckless with the truth) as Fox News, in that context, I was bracing myself for a huge disappointment with Stewart and Colbert’s rally.
Truth is, I had forgotten the Stewart-Colbert event was going to happen – it wasn’t that much on my mind - and had planned on spending a beautiful sunny Saturday away from the screen. Then I made the mistake of checking email Saturday morning and clicking a link and there it was, live streaming on C-Span, with Colbert playing the spastic Dean Martin role to Stewart’s Frank Sinatra.
I had already heard complaints from democracy’s best (maybe only) friends, community and field organizers, that Comedy Central’s scheduling of the rally would pull many attendees off the phone banks and door-to-door canvasses to get out the vote today. But what the hell, it must be good for a few laughs, and there I was, sucked, like so many others, into its vortex, another spectator among millions.
After all, I thought, Tuesday’s US elections might well go as badly as the media keeps telling us they will, so might as well look for something to laugh rather than cry about. And the Colbert-Stewart schtick on the Washington Mall was entertaining enough, and it was nice to be made to feel that folks like us are the real mainstream, and they got in some clever zingers exposing the hypocrisy not just of Fox News but of the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are the New York Times and National Public Radio. Hooray! But I still felt kind of empty about it, and annoyed with its timing, until at the end when Jon Stewart delivered “the speech.”
Stewart’s speech was a really important moment, and here is why I think so.
Now, I was just a kid when Sinatra premiered the Claude Francois, Jaques Revaux and Paul Anka-penned “My Way,” but I imagine that for the millions of us who watched Jon Stewart get serious and sincere on live TV on Saturday that it was probably, for many of us, a moment like that of a previous generation hearing the “I did it my way” anthem for the first time. It was historic, and it came by surprise from a stage that we did not expect it to come from.
In a few brief minutes, Stewart defined the real problem with politics, identified it as the neighborhood bully in the global village, and delivered a staggering left hook to its jaw. And the bully’s apologists and wannabes are still quite concussed and off balance. “Jon Stewart has met the enemy, and it’s the media,” fretted our fine feathered friends at Politico. And the hen house has been clucking ever since.
To wit, the predictably smarmy reaction from the New York Times:
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear will be remembered, in part, as an expensive, engrossing act of media criticism.
Jon Stewart, the comedian who hosted the Comedy Central rally alongside Stephen Colbert, spoke about the press as an “immune system” for the country — one that he evidently thinks is extremely sick. His words echoed up and down the National Mall on Saturday afternoon. National Journal wound up wondering if the event should have been called the Rally to Restore Journalism.
Mr. Stewart has ventured into serious media criticism before on “The Daily Show” and in appearances on CNN and Fox News. But Saturday’s comments were notable because hundreds of journalists were in attendance, standing on a press riser near the stage and interviewing rallygoers in the crowd.
The media’s flaws also came up time and time again in the crowd…
An “expensive, engrossing act of media criticism” they called it (as if putting out a single day’s edition of the boring and status quo chasing NY Times isn’t at least as expensive and engrossing as Comedy Central’s Saturday afternoon gathering of hundreds of thousands of its closest friends). Anyway, the Times had banned its employees from attending the rally, which earned it one of Colbert’s “fear awards” handed out during the event.
The aforementioned National Journal story said:
Maybe it's a good thing many mainstream journalists weren't allowed to attend the "Rally to Restore Sanity." They wouldn't be the most popular people there.
For, in a protest against a culture of yelling, journalists are drawing much of the ire...
The Christian Science Monitor – no longer a hard copy newspaper but, rather, an exclusively online rag, which probably makes it a bit more sensitized to new realities of media, engaged in some pre-rally navel gazing:
If you thought the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ” coming up on Oct. 30 in Washington was just a date for some good laughs and maybe hot entertainment, think again. It is also shaping up as yet another event in the ongoing dialogue about where journalism is headed in the brave world of new media, where points of view are welcome.
I’m always amazed at these graduates of the “the best journalism schools” who misunderstand it all. They seem to think that the conflict is between journalists who can disclose our opinions and those who think they can’t. The real conflict is between those who seek the to involve the people in discovering the whole truth, and those pursuing ratings and advertising or sponsors, who think they are somehow a caste above the plebes. But, anyway...
Well, enough of what the recipients of Stewart’s critique have to say. Let’s listen or read together to much of what Stewart actually said that has so many of their panties – I’m winkin’ at you, Keith Olbermann – in a bunch. Stewart said:
I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.
But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that 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…
The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker--and perhaps eczema.
And yet, with that being said, I feel good—strangely, calmly good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin and one eyeball.
So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe—torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!
The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live our values and principles form the foundations that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it--impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.
Look on the screen. This is where we are. This is who we are.
(Stewart then uses a large video screen as a visual prop, showing an aerial view of what looks like an entrance to the Holland or Lincoln tunnels that connect New Jersey with New York and a four lane highway narrowing into two lanes as traffic enters the tunnel.)
These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.
And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by conscession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.
And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.
Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.
If you want to know why I’m here and want I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.
Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.
Our friend Tom Watson’s response was to playfully tag Stewart as America’s First Jewish President, which has a nice ring to it. And in the sense that a significant sector of society is finally coming to the long overdue conclusion that media is the central problem of our times could be defined as a nation, of sorts, or a shared state of mind, Stewart certainly gave voice to the one problem the media won’t and can’t honestly address: Itself. It took a “comedy” commentator to be able to talk plainly and matter-of-factly about it.
And now I understood why Stewart called and produced the rally: He is thinking beyond this news cycle (“election day” and its consequences) and toward what, tonight and tomorrow, comes next.
In 1996, I wrote:
Media now controls a new economic order: one that has supplanted governments, churches and productive industry to impose a mediating tyranny over people and our Daily Lives.
Among the 30,000 words I penned for that essay, were these:
The public is angry, of course, but Media channels our hostility toward each other, as groups and market niches, instead of against the overall phenomena of Middlemen and their mediating technologies. Ah but we notice at fissure in its vessel: Media has programmed us well to seek scapegoats, and has test-marketed every scapegoat upon us except itself.
Everything we’ve created since, for the past 14 years, from Narco News to the School of Authentic Journalism to The Field, has been building and preparing for public opinion to find its voice on the problem of media, helping to inform it when we can, and constructing these laboratories to invent and test what we, the people, can do to replace the media and make it less powerful over our daily lives. And we’ve risen up a small army or network of like-minded authentic journalists across international lines, many of whom are conducting their own experiments and inventions. We suffer from a perpetual lack of resources (okay, that is sugar-coating it: we live in abject poverty, many of us in the so-called “third world”) and generally those who already have plenty of money are disinterested, or too dependent on maintaining good relations with big media themselves, or outright hostile to the suggestion that the whole “news media” show needs to be blown up and something new created from the ground up. But we don't complain. We'd rather be here than there.
Back in 2007, when I was reporting on the Obama campaign and its resurrection of community organizing as a political tool, I was very impressed with its “Camp Obama,” in which tens of thousands of mostly young people from every demographic in the US were trained in its fine but then forgotten arts. And I suggested to the big guns of Obama’s political organization – David Plouffe, David Axelrod, at the time Marshall Ganz - that they expand the concept to also start a kind of “Obama Media Camp” training program and form an army of independent video makers, reporters and communicators in all forms of media to construct a counterforce to the dominant media discourse. After all, its something we had already invented through The School of Authentic Journalism, it works, and if applied on a mass grassroots level, a political movement would no longer be dependent on or victim of the very different and often hostile operating procedures of commercial media. They were busy with other things, understandably, but I bet that, after today’s elections, they’ll wish they had done something like that.
Every grassroots citizen movement in every country has to start building its own media, now, urgently, immediately, to have a fighting chance at defining itself and its message before public opinion, or big media will continue pummeling the hope and inspiration out of everyone.
And that’s why Jon Stewart’s message on Saturday came at the exact opportune moment in history, because starting tonight, more and more people in the United States and elsewhere are going to realize that the problem in our cultures is much bigger than mere politics. The broken political systems are mere symptoms of what Stewart described when he observed: “The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker.” Every time I have written against panic and “Chicken Little” approaches to politics, it has been from that same instinct: that overreaction makes its practitioners not only useless as change agents, but also unattractive and unappealing to the great mass of people out here who we need to organize and convince to get almost anything real done.
After the success of Stewart and Colbert’s rally (plenty of credit should also go Colbert’s way because he so artfully plays the “insane” role that allows Stewart to effectively play the voice of “sanity”), a lot of folks in the media, especially those who market themselves as “alternative” media, will be acting as if they are enthusiastic supporters of Stewart’s message while they continue behaving like “liberal” versions of Fox News (which is why I’m kind of relieved to see Keith Olbermann’s Twitter outburst, “It wasn't a big shark but Jon Stewart jumped one just now with the ‘everybody on The cable is the same’ naiveté,” inadvertently demonstrating the truth of what the MSNBC host was denying).
Sorry, Keith (and Arianna, and even my once-and-future little brothers Markos and Nate, there is still a place for you all among the people when you decide to go for broke instead of going for the money, and we'll all welcome you back with open arms). It doesn’t matter who plays the token liberal roles on TeeVee or newspapers or magazines or radio or the Internet as long as y’all are playing the same ratings and advertising driven game; drumming up the outrage and the poutrage, making every pothole seem like an earthquake, desperately trying to hang on to a public that is evidently tuning out on all that. It is the game board itself that has to be torn up and something else altogether invented from the bottom up to replace it.
And I know that a great many of the millions who saw Stewart’s sincere remarks Saturday live from the Washington Mall, or since, “get” that at the most profound level. The question of what we now do about it is one we have been asking and answering for ten years from this web address and out beyond it in the realm of daily life. And Stewart has opened up a hole in the media system that we can and must now jackhammer, fracture and make bigger in order to drive a stake through its heartless pacemaker.
Saturday was a heroic moment for Jon Stewart, who may yet disappoint us, still, but for now is on fire, and good on him. All props to him and his team, a Sinatra Rat Pack for our times. And I’m reminded of Aunt May’s speech to Peter Parker in Spider Man 2, on point:
Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams...
I have a feeling that was what Jon Stewart’s words meant for a lot of people on Saturday, and since. And starting Wednesday, the organizing begins anew to do something big about it, to make and be the change we might not have made electorally in 2010. We have it in our collective power to organize something really, truly, authentically historic, to make history once again: To get this yoke of “the media” off our necks. Never mind the scoreboard at the end of a single Election Day. Elections come and go. It’s the other 360-something days a year when we really control our destinies or not. Elections are important. There is no denying it. But every single other day and night of the year has import, too. Let’s keep perspective, and never panic. Yes, we will. And we shall overcome.