Photo Courtesy of Taxing
Last Saturday, an estimated 215,000 people attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear hosted by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. The two faux news anchors have a loyal following of more than one million viewers thanks to their ability to deliver commentary on everything from politics to pop culture with sharp tongues, comic skits and insightful observations. Much like their shows, the rally was part comedy and part entertainment, and managed to address difficult issues through laughter.
Throughout the day, even amongst the levity, funny signs and comedic bits, there was an underlying tone of seriousness and a realization about why we were all there in the first place—to raise our hands and say yes, I choose civil discourse; yes, I choose the right to make my own decision; and no, I will not blindly follow that which I am told to accept.
During a “moment of sincerity,” as Comedy Central dubbed it, Stewart expressed his hope that attendees would continue to “work together,” not by yelling and name-calling, but rather by compromise and compassion. Stewart discussed just how we’d reached this point in our society—seemingly so far from civility—and placed a large portion of the blame squarely on the 24/7 news media cycle and politicians on the Hill. The crowd straining to hear each of Stewart’s words nodded in agreement with his position that, “The news cycle didn’t create our problems, but it made solving them that much harder… if we amplify everything, we hear nothing.” In the end, Stewart challenged each person to be a vanguard of our country’s sanity and champion against fear by reminding us that, “Sanity has always been and will always be in the eye of the beholder.”
Now that the suspense surrounding the rally is over, we ponder what it all means and what the possible ramifications of this one moment in time will be on the Millennial generation, on Americans, on Election Day and beyond.
Stewart and Colbert are just entertainers, aren’t they? Should we put stock in what they are saying or is this a publicity stunt? Looking back, it is not the first time they have blurred the line between entertainment and real life to get a few laughs—whether it’s in the hot seat during a debate or running for President in 2008.
Their ability to command our attention lies in their talents to transcend between the two genres and to blend the two worlds together. After all, it’s much easier to talk about a controversial topic or deal with what may be a frightening situation when it’s presented through satire and comedy, right? As Erica, a rally attendee and Millennial exclaimed, “I think [Stewart and Colbert] are entertainers, politicians, comedians and advocates. And I don't think that being both a comedian and a celebrity in any way diminishes the impact of their messages.”
Erica’s not alone in her sentiments. A report released by Rasmussen Reports in 2009 found that “nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 say satirical news-oriented television programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show… are taking the place of traditional news outlets.” In addition, “21% characterize programs these types of shows as at least somewhat influential in shaping their political opinions.” Most however (70%), of respondents (from all age groups) still say these types of shows are not influential.
Is Anyone Really Listening?
The dynamic comedy duo have long been heralded as the voice of the 18 to 34 year old demographic in particular. In fact, some pegged the rally as one that would define the Millennial generation, and in so polarize those from older generations.
Contrary to what many believed, the turnout at the rally was noticeably mutli-generational. It’s no surprise though when you look at demographics for both shows. The median age for both has actually gone up in recent years. As of 2009, the average viewer was age 41.4 for The Daily Show and age 38.3 for The Colbert Report. According to a report from Forbes.com, the number of viewers ages 18 to 34 actually fell between 14% and 15% for both shows between 2008 and 2009. Comedy Central spokespeople confirmed for Forbes however, that both shows “still attract the youngest viewers of the late night talk shows.” Looking around at the many people from all different generations at the rally, it was clear to see these statistics had come to life on the National Mall.
Is the Media Really to Blame?
We as a society are spending more time consuming news than a decade ago. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that technology has made the news much more accessible and therefore contributed to our increased consumption.
In an interesting twist, the same survey found that the public remains “skeptical” when it comes to trusting news from the major outlets. In fact, “no more than a third says they can believe all or most of the reporting by 14 major news organizations.” Believability ratings for all sources of news have seen a significant decline since the 1990s.
We also find ourselves forging a deepening divide between political parties and credibility ratings among new sources. Responses revealed that, “Republicans express far less confidence than Democrats in most major outlets.” When it comes to cable news outlets the divide is growing at an unprecedented rate. Take Fox News for example, “In 2000, about equal percentages of each [party] said they could believe all or most of what Fox News said (26% Republicans, 27% Democrats). Since then, Fox News’ credibility rating among Republicans has increased (now 41%). As a result, there is now a 20-point partisan gap in Fox News’ credibility ratings.”
Who do you believe? What sources can you trust? Is the media part of the problem as Stewart suggested? In the end, the choice is ours—we can choose to change the channel, pick a specific newspaper or click on one link instead of another. Ratings, subscriptions and number of views are the name of the game and to invoke the words of Captain Planet who was also in attendance at the rally, “the power is yours.”
What Happens Next?
That appears to be the big question looming on peoples’ minds—so now what? Stewart and Colbert shined a light on very ugly problems, but rather than lay out a 10-point plan, empowered people to make their own stand when it comes to our country’s future.
In light of the mid-term elections taking place today, it’s anybody’s guess whether or not this rally will impact peoples’ decision to vote in the short term. Patrick, another enthusiastic rally attendee who is a Millennial as well noted, “It seems like the right has a lot of energy and fervor going into the mid-term elections. This rally seems like a response to a lot of the hysteria being drummed up...” I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if Stewart and Colbert’s efforts will have a ripple effect or not in voting booths across America.
As for the longer-term impact of the rally, Erica reflected, “I think civic dialogue has been lost to the vocal minority and the media. I'm not sure if the rally itself will do much to impact the younger generation, but if anything, I think it will motivate the young people who are sympathetic to Jon Stewart's message to be more confident—but not louder—in the face of disagreement from others.” At the end of the day all we can ask for is that we agree to disagree rather than be uncivil. It is clear by the overwhelming attendance and positive word of mouth about the rally that there is something to all of this. I dare say it is perhaps a movement in the making.