Sunday, 7 November 2010

Daily Show 'sanity' rally: more harm to the left than good?

I thought I'd post a video from this weekend's Real Time with Bill Maher show on the subject of Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" because I remember last weekend a lot of Europeans were asking me about it and whether I was going to watch. "No," I told them, "I'm not going to watch it, and if I was in the US this weekend I wouldn't be attending it either." At the time I don't think I was articulating my annoyance with Stewart and the rally all that clearly, but I told my friends I thought the rally was going to be almost depressingly irrelevant. Of course in the end it was. Though the rally had a huge turnout, the youth vote in last Tuesday's election was the lowest in years. On Friday night, Bill Maher delivered a monologue that I think will resonate with a lot of American Daily Show viewers who were uncomfortable with Stewart's rally but couldn't articulate why.

Yes, the Daily Show rally, held on the national mall in Washington, may have attracted twice as many people as tea party pied piper and Fox News host Glenn Beck's "Rally to Restore American Honor" which it was meant to lampoon. But that was cold comfort to some in the dwindling ranks of the politically active American left, who saw the rally more as a depressing reminder of the current state of things than anything they could be proud of. The Daily Show's writers and producers have an undeniable liberal viewpoint, and the show spends most of its time making fun of Fox News and Republican politicians. But the show also likes to present itself as being "non-political." After showing outrageous clips from politicians on the right, host Jon Stewart frequently insists that the same level of craziness exists on the left. But he rarely provides any actual examples of this phantom American left.

Right from the moment it was announced a few months ago, the rally was presented as a protest against extremism "on both sides," as if the problem with American politics has been that there are two extremes in Washington that refuse to compromise with each other. In reality, the biggest problem with the past two years was that "compromise" came to be redefined only as Democrats abandoning principles to appease Republicans, and that's how they ended up with significantly watered-down healthcare legislation.

As he introduced the rally, Stewart contrasted images of powerful tea party media personalities and elected Republican politicians saying crazy things with images of Code Pink, a ragtag group of liberal activists who disrupt meetings while wearing pink boas and funny hats. Of course, contrasting images of elected Republican leaders with a few completely powerless liberal activists is just about the ultimate in false equivalency. Stewart then went on to contrast video of blatant lies being presented on Fox News by reporters and news anchors with video of liberal commentators offering opinions on MSNBC. Not exactly the same thing.

During the rally they made the same comparison. Stewart is always desperate to appear non-political and usually adds "on both sides" to just about any criticism he levels. And yet The Daily Show is without a doubt the strongest counterpoint in America to the Fox News right-wing media. American liberals should wonder - with media friends like Stewart, who needs enemies? Here's the criticism video from Maher, a Libertarian TV show host known for his outspoken views:

"The message of the rally, as I heard it, was that if the media stopped giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all nonpartisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side forgetting that Obama tried that and found out...there are no moderates on the other side. When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the Right who believe Obama's a Socialist and people on the Left who believe 9/11's an inside job, but I can't name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11's an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama's a Socialist? All of them."
As I wrote about in my blog entry on the US midterm results last week, this is the kind of narrative that progressives have to struggle with in the United States. Even the most-watched "liberal" television news show creates a phantom extreme left to disparage. And MSNBC, the only US news network that has liberal hosts for its prime time opinion shows, has consistently the lowest ratings in cable news. Apparently, Americans can only be convinced to watch liberal-leaning news programs if they call themselves non-political and couch the news in humor and fart jokes.

As the commentators criticize President Obama for being unable to communicate the huge number achievements that took place these past two years (one of the most legislatively productive congressional sessions in US history), keep in mind that this is the media environment he's working with. When President Obama appeared on the Daily Show the week before the elections Stewart sometimes even seemed openly hostile to him. And this is the only liberal-leaning news show that enjoys even marginal ratings success. Meanwhile, Fox News continues to be the most-watched news network in America, earning ratings that are higher than all the other news networks combined.

This is the environment in which the American left struggles in America - where all they can muster for a rally is a giant celebration of apathy. Quite a contrast to the protests of the French left bringing the country to a stand-still last month. So you can see why, as I noted in my blog last week, I don't see much evidence to suggest that the conservative-dominated narrative in the US is going to change any time soon. As Maher notes, the American left needs to fight for what they believe in. But there just doesn't seem to be much appetite for that fight amongst the American left these days. And, as you've perhaps noticed, that fighting appetite exists in spades on the right. Their cup runneth over with aggression. To quote Maher again:
"Martin Luther King spoke on that Mall in the capital and he didn't say, 'Remember folks, those southern sheriffs with the fire hoses and the German shepherds, they have a point too.' No, he said I have a dream, they have a nightmare. Liberals, like the ones on that field, must stand up and be counted and not pretend that we're as mean, or greedy, or short-sighted or just plain bat-shit as they are. And if that's too polarizing for you, and you still wanna reach across the aisle ... try church"


Kallisti said...

I agree with you that TDS and Jon seems to be supporting the false equivalency at times, but what is much, much more problematic is that the administration seems to subscribe to that as well. If only Alan Grayson, in his own way, was calling the right out on it, how are the news media going to be able to counter the craziness?

If we cancel out Michelle Bachmann and Grayson (who do you think got re-elected) you still have everyone from Boehner down being the party of no, while the dems and their dogs are trying to accommodate them.

As I have written before, I don't understand Obama not trying to communicate directly to the electorate more, instead of negotiating only with Congress. Who gave him that advise? Don't they realize that his constituents are their constituents as well? Hopefully the chief negotiator will disappear to Chicago politics, but I'm not so hopeful about a change in the administration strategy.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree with the above comment. During the Bush presidency the administration and Fox News formed a close symbiotic relationship. The Obama administration has formed no such relationship with MSNBC. In fact they've often been very hostile toward MSNBC, and there was that famous instance when Obama press spokesman Tim Gibbs called the left hysterical and whiney who would never be happy with anything.

The Obama administration constantly uses the same false equivalency in order to make itself appear "moderate" and above the fray. I think Jon Stewart's intention is the same. But in the process they do real harm to the left by painting them as being as extreme and nonsensical as the right.