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Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Geoffrey Baym
Associate Professor, Dept. of Media Studies, and Author
Friday, October 29, 2010; 12:00 PM

Geoffrey Baym, Ph.D., associate professor of media studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and author of "From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News," was online Friday, Oct. 29, at Noon ET to discuss the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert 'Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear' and the conflation of news, entertainment, politics and comedy.

Full Coverage: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: The 10/30 rally

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Geoffrey Baym: Whatever happens at tomorrow‘s rally, it will be a remarkable moment. For years now, despite all the laughter, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been some of the sanest voices on television, regularly using the tools of comedy - satire and sarcasm, irony and parody - to try to “restore sanity” to American political discourse. It would seem contradictory that the comedians have become the reasonable ones, but in a political culture that seems more bizarre every day, perhaps its only through humor that we can get to a more sensible place. Now, that comedic call for moderation, reasonable dialogue, and democratic accountability is transcending the television screen. I doubt it will change the way anyone votes next Tuesday, but it just might nudge our collective political mindset a step in the right direction.

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Isn't this just a comedy show? : I've seen friends' posts on Facebook about taking their toddlers to the rally -- one of them said she thinks it'll be an "important moment in history for the kids to witness." We're not talking about Obama's inauguration or some other truly historic moment here. I like Stewart and Colbert, but people need some perspective. This rally is a comedy show and my friend's 3 and 5-year-olds won't get it!

Geoffrey Baym: Certainly could be over the head of a 3-year-old. But the point of the rally isn't really about having a laugh (although that's an important aspect of it). It's more about our political culture -- the ways we think and talk about politics, and act politically. If a 5-year-old learns to be less partisan and more reasonable, and is influenced to think of herself as a citizen, then that seems to me to be an awfully good thing!

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Jacksonville, N.C.: Though Jon Stewart refers to himself as nothing more than a comedian, it's clear he has a stake in the political world. Do you think Stewart shapes the debate we have in this country, or does his just simply energize his young, liberal base?

Geoffrey Baym: Increasingly Stewart is influencing the political debate. Remember CNN's Crossfire? And now he's interviewing the president, vice-president, and many high-ranking senators, congressmen, etc. So it's probably fair to say that his influence is growing. And yes, at the same time he certain;y is energizing his base (although that base isn't as young -- or liberal -- as people tend to assume!).

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I am wondering what your thoughts are on Stephen Colbert hosting a real event and even testifying before Congress, because while "Stephen Colbert," like Jon Stewart, are entertainers, isn't Colbert more of a fictional character? Jon Stewart can go out and "be" Jon Stewart. Does portraying oneself as a ficitonal character, as does Stephen Colbert create different dilemmas than those facing Jon Stewart when become "real"?

Geoffrey Baym: You've definitely identified the core difference between Stewart and Colbert -- Stewart performs as himself each night, while Colbert is fundamentally a fiction. In practice, that means that Colbert can take far greater risks than Stewart can. Stewart after all is accountable for his words, while Colbert can always insist it was the "character" speaking.

That being said, though, Colbert's testimony before Congress (and let's not forget his long-running series "Better Know a District") illustrates the extent to which the factual and the fictional have merged in contemporary politics. That's the point of much of Stewart's critique -- the ways in which theatrical spectacle has replaced serious discourse in American politics (and media). By being a fictional character, Colbert performs that point for us regularly.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems that a lot more coverage has been given to Jon Stewart and his role in the rally. Stephen Colbert has always been a sidenote in the articles I have read here and elsewhere. The thing is that the rally is happening in part due to the online campaign to get Colbert, not Stewart, to host a parody of Glenn Beck's rally. Why do you think Colbert has gotten so little coverage?

Geoffrey Baym: Excellent question. I've also noticed that all the attention is focused on Stewart. That might be because Colbert is so enigmatic. He's difficult to grasp, and to write about in neat, short sentences. Stewart much more resembles a "real" journalist, so perhaps his actions hit closer to home for political reporters and pundits?

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Brasilia, Brazil: What impact do Stewart and Colbert have combined in comparison to Limbaugh or Beck?

Geoffrey Baym: Influence is always a tricky thing to assess. My sense is that Limbaugh and Beck have far greater short-term influence. They have a devoted audience who regularly follow them, and both are very willing to tell that audience what to do (and whom to vote for). Stewart and Colbert are less straight-forward. They almost never advocate a particular candidate or a specific policy. Instead, they're influence is in the direction of critical awareness and reasonable discourse. They critique the media and political spectacle, and constantly advocate for a better conversation. The influence of that might take root far more slowly.

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If a 5-year-old learns to be less partisan and more reasonable: A more reasonable 5-year-old. Now THAT I can support.

Of course, what they might actually be learning from the rally is that we're supposed to make fun of the political beliefs of others.

Geoffrey Baym: Sometimes Stewart and Colbert make fun of individuals and their beliefs. But more often, they make fun of a *process* that has become increasingly convoluted. The representational system may not work as well as we might like it too, and that more than anything is the object of the humor.

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"... just a comedy show?": Sure. And Glenn Beck's outlet is just a "talk show." And the Roots are just "musicians." Are none of these people professional political rally ralliers? Maybe the point is to assemble, pause, relax, and not take one's self and one's politics too seriously?

Geoffrey Baym: And Huckabee is both a show and former presidential candidate (and then there's Elliot Spitzer?). The lines between entertainers, politicians, and advocates have become mostly meaningless.

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Cornstalk Nebraska: As a 64-year-old grandmother, I certainly agree with you about Stewart's demographic not being only young people. Whatever age they are, his viewers have to be well informed about the issues in order to get the jokes. Some schtick gets old but the interviews keep getting better and better.

Geoffrey Baym: People seem to have mixed feelings about the interviews. I've always appreciated the range of people you see on the two shows -- often voices that we don't get to hear in other places. But of course, Stewart, and especially Colbert, tend to dominate the scene (except, of course, during the Obama interview the other night).

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Pike Creek, Del.: Many pundits seem to dismiss the impact of the Jon Stewart rally. What would be a successful outcome? What does it mean that C-SPAN is covering it? Overall, it seems like a breath of fresh air.

Geoffrey Baym: Success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Is it a question of how many people show up? How entertained the crowd will be? Whether it changes people's minds or gets them to vote? Or perhaps it's just a much needed, high-profile call for moderation and reason?

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Austin, Tex.: How does a moderate express his or her POV? And get heard on TV in the cable world? I used to think Obama was a moderate, but according to some he is a left-wing socialist Hitler wannabe and to others a traitor to the progressive movement. By porcess of elimination, does this make him a moderate?

Geoffrey Baym: Much of the point is that it's almost impossible to voice moderate positions in the cable news world. That's why the (seemingly paradoxical) call for seriousness is coming from the silly people. The answer might not be moderation on Fox or MSNBC, but rather in more alternative kinds of programs in this increasingly diverse and open media environment.

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I'm Worried About Stephen Colbert...:

As was demonstrated in Kentucky, the tea party does NOT understand satire. I am worried that Colbert may get his head stomped on...

I guess I am keeping fear alive...

Geoffrey Baym: That's always a complication here. Colbert never says what he means, which means its easier to miss the point. But I wouldn't worry too much about his safety -- research shows a good number of conservatives think he really is what he claims to be.

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Athens, Ga.: Is anybody missing the mockery? I mean their entire shows are set up to mock your standard cable news show. Now that cable news hosts have started having rallies, the next move would be to do an "homage" to that while pointing out how silly it all it...

Geoffrey Baym: Indeed! The real impetus here is to parody Glenn Beck. Colbert has been mimicking right-wing pundits since day one. But just like how the Colbert Report has moved beyond that original intent, so to does this rally transcend merely making fun.

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The difference between Stewart and Colbert : A few years ago, an organization that hosts one of those jovial media/politicians dinners made the mistake of inviting Stephen Colbert to provide the after-dinner entertainment. He proceeded to savage his audience, so much that the evening was widely derided as a failure by the mainstream press when, in fact, if you look at the video on YouTube, it was telling truth to power in the great American tradition of Mencken and Twain. Even if given the opportunity, I don't think Stewart would do that -- he wants too much to be liked.

The next year, by the way, the group invited the superannuated comic Rich Little to be the after-dinner jokester. That made them look especially lame.

Geoffrey Baym: The White House Correspondent's Dinner was a fascinating moment. And you're right, Stewart would not have come out swinging like that. Again, that relates to the very different characters they assume on their shows. Colbert is the bigger risk taker.

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But more often, they make fun of a *process* that has become increasingly convoluted. : Yes, I get that, and you get that. But a 5-year-old will not.

Geoffrey Baym: Fair enough, but the bigger point is the kind of political culture/influences people are socialized with and within.

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Of course, what they might actually be learning from the rally is that we're supposed to make fun of the political beliefs of others.: No, what is being made fun of is inconsistency, waffling, demagoguery etc.

Geoffrey Baym: Right ... spectacle and spin in place of reason and dialogue, manipulation in place of reason, confrontation in place of conversation.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Stewart and Colbert are left of center as are most of their fans. Wouldn't their impact be limited primarily to the left? Doesn't the right need some taming too? When are Dennis Miller and Nick Di Paolo going to hold a rally?

Geoffrey Baym: You're probably right in terms of political preferences, but I think it's a mistake to try to place this on the same old left/right, liberal/conservative, blue/red scale. It's pretty clear that kind of ideological rigidity doesn't help solve any problems, and it's very much what lies beneath the title "rally to restore sanity."

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Many pundits seem to dismiss the impact: The term "pundit" is now as meaningless as the line between fictional news and actual journalism. You used to have to have a record of knowledge about your subject to get your opinions published; now all you have to do is get paid by some TV show.

Geoffrey Baym: That's the negative side of the conflation of news and entertainment. And it's exactly what Colbert meant by "truthiness" or his original promise not to "read the news to you," but to "feel the news at you." Some would say we live in a moment of *epistemological crisis*.

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Seattle, Wash.: How do you think the amount of people who actually show up to the rally will affect its influence? The media enjoys using numbers; if it's a relatively small or a relatively huge crowd will that affect the media 'story' and impact more then the content itself?

Geoffrey Baym: Two different things -- the media narrative, and how people actually feel/think/react. The more people, the bigger media splash it will make. Unavoidably, many will frame this as Stewart vs. Beck and want to know which one attracted more people. But again, and this is probably your point -- that's not ultimately all that important.

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But will it be funny?: If it is not funny and entertaining won't it be a big flop? It seems this is a big risk for Stewart, in particular, since Colbert basically works for Stewart. What will it take for the "rally" to be a sucess. both in terms of entertaintment and as political satire.

Geoffrey Baym: Again, that's a question of what we mean by success. My guess is most of the people who will be there will have a good time, regardless of just how sharp or entertaining it is. It's as much an "event" as it is a program, and simply being there might be the point for a lot of people.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How likely do you think Stewart/Colbert are to rally a last-minute increased voter turnout among young voters (i.e., under 30)? Aren't they far likelier to vote for Democrats, which could tip some undecided elections away from slightly-leading Republicans?

Geoffrey Baym: Maybe that depends on whether Stewart and Colbert specifically call for people to get out and vote. In general, though, I'm hesitant to say that any one TV show (or rally) results in an electoral effect.

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the ways in which theatrical spectacle has replaced serious discourse in American politics (and media).: Politics and its lack of serious discourse has invaded everything, including science. I'm still appalled about the e-mails discovered in which climate scientists discussed how to suppress data that didn't support their point of view about global warming. We've gotten to where every issue is a political issue and people would rather scream at each other or refuse to acknowledge anything that appears to discredit their viewpoint. I'm concerned about the environment, but I don't want to lie or suppress data in order to make people think the same as me. When stuff like that happens there is no longer any trust and we cannot speak to each other.

Geoffrey Baym: Yes -- and that loss of shared knowledge, of a factual record that serves as the basis for political discussion is a profound problem. And one that both Stewart and Colbert are regularly addressing.

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D.C. area: Do you think Stewart's Obama interview dispels allegations that Stewart is just pandering for the left? That was no hip-hip-hurray rally; he asked tough questions and when he didn't get direct answers, he asked again. I suspect some conservative media outlets were disappointed that the interview was so hard-hitting (that is, for a comedy talk show host).

Geoffrey Baym: I would hope so. While Stewart certainly is a progressive, he doesn't pull punches with Democrats. He was respectful with the president, but also asked serious questions (even accusing Obama of being "timid"). That doesn't really seem like the work of a partisan hack.

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Orono, Maine: When I watched Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner, I laughed so hard that I never realized that nobody in the room was laughing.

Considering in early 2006, political heavyweights like Charlie Cook or Chuck Tood were predicting that Democrats would only gain about 6 to 9 seats in the 2006 midterm elections, I like to think Stephen Colbert and the massive positive online reaction to his routine was a bit of a "canary in the coal mine" showing the mood of the nation.

Geoffrey Baym: Good point. I've argued that Stewart and Colbert are the vanguard of a "reinvention" of public affairs media, a new kind of hybrid blend of entertainment, information, and quite serious political critique. They're often ahead of the curve.

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But more often, they make fun of a *process* that has become increasingly convoluted./Yes, I get that, and you get that. But a 5-year-old will not.: But 5-year-olds won't be voting for another 13 years (at least), so it doesn't matter what they think now. They'll grow and learn between now and then.

Geoffrey Baym: Yes, 5-year-olds are a long way from voting age. But long before we vote, we learn the basic cultural assumptions about what politics *is* and how we, as individuals, relate to the political system. The average 18-year-old has grown up in a deeply cynical culture and is disinclined to self-identify as a *citizen*. Until that starts to change, then all the other problems we've identified will continue.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Any reason why Will Rogers's name is seldom invoked when discussing Stewart/Colbert? They both seem to be urban versions of Will, with a bit more bite. Kindly compare. Thanks.

Geoffrey Baym: I admit I'm not that familiar with political humorists of the past, but you're right that there is a long lineage, including HL Mencken, Lenny Bruce, and even Mad Magazine. So I appreciate the reminder that Stewart and Colbert are building on those who came before. My sense, though, is that they have become more central to national political discourse than their earlier counterparts.

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Boston, Mass.: Why does Stewart's staff always seem to have the gotcha angles to stories that the news media consistently miss? It seems that the news is becoming increasingly more like entertainment, while Jon Stewart is becoming increasingly more like the news. It seems like the news media are sacrificing common sense for entertainment purposes. Is 24-hour cable news killing the integrity of the industry?

Geoffrey Baym: 24-hour-news is tough ... too much airtime and too few resources. But network news gutted much of its substance in the late-80s and early 90s, and let's not forget local TV news, which remains (collectively) the top source of news in the country.

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Musical acts: Any hints on who the "TBD" musical act will be? (I'm hoping for Bruce)

Geoffrey Baym: That's a good guess. Certainly would make Stewart's day. Neil Young could also be a possibility. But no, I don't know any actual facts in this regard!

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What do you mean, Stewart "resembles" a "real" journalist?: I think I speak [for] a large portion of America when I say that I consider Stewart to be a real journalist. The only difference between him and the ones that work for CNN-NBC-WaPo-etc., is that he takes seriously facts but not the presentation of his subject-matter.

Geoffrey Baym: Great point. I've argued at length that Stewart is as much a real journalist as anyone else who claims that title on TV. My point in the previous comment was that his work is far more familiar to journalists than Colbert's is. Stewart presents the day's news and interviews important people, while Colbert takes the news and turns it into satirical theater.

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SW D.C.: I noticed the stage, etc., is being pointed so that the Capitol is the backdrop. When Stewart announced the location he said it was because it was in the middle neither at the Capitol nor at the Lincoln Memorial. It seems to be a disconnect.

Geoffrey Baym: There's definitely a tension here between Stewart and Colbert as political outsiders, critiquing from the margins of public life, and Stewart and Colbert as political insiders with access to the highest power brokers and a high-profile national voice. How that plays out tomorrow, and from there, is unclear.

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Bowie, Md.: Colbert is fundamentally a fiction...but what evidence is there besides consistency to prove that Glenn Beck isn't just as much a "character" playing to his audience?

Geoffrey Baym: Another good point. Beck has called himself a comedian, and also said he's channeling Howard Beal (from "Network"). He's a character, as is O'Reilly (who told Colbert as much during the "Pundit Exchange" a few years ago). And perhaps, as is anyone who assumes a position of visibility in national life?

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Arlington, Va.: Will this wind, lay low, the mighty mountains of the earth?

Geoffrey Baym: No. The mountains are tall and strong. But over time, wind can reshape a mountain.

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Geoffrey Baym: This has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you all for your comments and questions ... lots of good stuff to think about here. Enjoy the rally tomorrow!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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