Part II: Celebrity and public good, featuring Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the Sanity/Fear Rally

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This post seemed timely when I came up with it over a month ago. Life intervened in my blogging schedule, but I still feel the need to close the loop. So here goes.

A little over a month ago, Comedy Central’s fake-news anchors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. The event took place three days before the American mid-term elections. Despite initial confusion about attendance, aerial photography has confirmed that approximately 215,000 people showed up.

The event’s stated purpose was to reject and/or celebrate the polarized political views that currently dominate American political discussions.

Stewart and Colbert have satirized this subject for over a decade. Because they do so via an entertainment platform — not a mainstream news channel — their critics are often uncertain about how to appropriately label and respond to them. To be fair, Stewart and Colbert have encouraged this ambiguity given the wide comedic fodder it affords them.

Do their programs skewer American political life for laughs, ratings and self-interest? Or does their humour’s context (and subtext) make them somewhat relevant as media and political commentators?

Scanning the citations on Wikipedia’s entry for the rally provides suitable grist:

I wonder whether Holmes and Carr listened to the same speech I did:

To my ears, Stewart’s central point is that media discussions become falsely polarized when moderate people do not exercise their civic rights and duties, and participate in political discussions. Hence the rally.

Does he pander to the crowd? Yes. Take cheap shots? Yes. Is he wrong? I don’t think so.

Think back to the early days after 9/11. Did you remember Stewart’s first show?

Although that aired nine days after 9/11, Stewart’s response is measured despite its obvious emotion and halfhearted efforts toward levity. He talks about the privilege of his position, free speech, democracy and what it takes to create collective meaning. He acknowledges grief and tragedy, and what it takes to weather those things.

A few years later, there was this appearance on Crossfire:

I can’t watch these videos and not come away impressed by the real fuel of Stewart’s comedic wit — his abiding passion and concern for the United States of America, its ideals and its future.

So why won’t the mainstream media accept Stewart as the messenger of reason that he consistently demonstrates a desire to be?

In Part I: Celebrity and public good, I argued that cultural documents such as LeBron James’ Nike commercial erode the credibility of public figures en masse — they make us painfully aware of their egos and motivation for personal profit, which in turn creates greater cynicism about celebrity ever working in the favour of the public good.

Imagine you’re the CEO of a corporation. You’ve just paid millions to the celebrity face of your brand or multinational business. Imagine this person is the focus of an intense relationship with millions of average people on an emotional level that your politician buddies can only dream about. After all, that’s probably the reason you signed them.

Then imagine this person begins mobilizing fans to take action on a social or political issue that affects your bottom line.

How happy are you now?

It’s not in corporate or political interest for celebrities to wield real public influence. No one’s going to have fun watching the Oscars if we get flash mobs and public protests every time Susan Sarandon opens her mouth on stage. It’s much easier to constrain celebrity influence by encouraging public perceptions that emphasize a celebrity’s complicity in the profit system, and paints any effort to step out of that mold through public action as naïve, ego-driven, idiotic and/or uninformed.

So back to Stewart.

Sure, he stands to gain something from the public stance he takes. He’s earned a massive online following, boosted the ratings for his show and made himself a household name. But that doesn’t mean he cannot provide legitimate criticism, particularly of the media of which he is a part. He has consistently risked his public brand to push that discussion forward.

Colbert, who I’ve said little about to this point, has made political risk taking a blood sport. In 2006, he used his right-wing persona to call George W. Bush out to his face at the Washington correspondents association’ dinner. Keep in mind that happened at a time when there was little open public criticism of the Bush administration. Colbert’s comments were initially downplayed or omitted by many outlets, and have since become infamous.

But let’s not forget that the media, like it’s increasingly cozy cousin entertainment, is a business. Businesses are driven by bottom lines. It will take a lot more than a rally or a roast for us to see a change in this business model and its ramifications for what news outlets explore, describe and ignore.

It will also take more celebrity figures willing to risk their profit margins and marketability to stand up for things they believe in consistently and responsibly.

I’d really love to read a historical account of this era in 300 years and see how Stewart and Colbert, and projects like their sanity and/or fear rally, are viewed with the benefit of hindsight.