Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," which packed the National Mall in Washington on Saturday, wasn't exactly what I anticipated. I came expecting laughs and mockery -- and, sure, that was part of it -- but instead found myself in the middle of a massive media-criticism seminar.
Sure, there was plenty of shtick and some surprise guests (Ozzy! Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?!), but I was more taken back by the enormous but subdued crowd, the unabashed displays of patriotism, and, especially, Stewart's insightful and earnest closing remarks.
After showing some choice cable news clips of the usual hyperventilating and fear-mongering we see every night, Stewart declared:
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 glass 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 dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.
One might hope such a clever and clear-headed critique would serve as something of a wake-up call for the mainstream media. But, alas, their reaction was far more predictable.
First, they downplayed the event as little more than a celebrity sideshow -- unworthy of the kind of coverage and column inches they'd give to, say, a much smaller Tea Party rally or Glenn Beck-a-Palooza (which made the front-pages despite being about a third the size of the Comedy Central event).
Then the media got awfully defensive about Stewart's jabs. New York Times media critic David Carr perhaps pushed back the hardest, writing that "media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election's closing days, and no American governing institution -- not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court -- seems to be above petty partisan bickering."
Carr characterized the speech as "attacking the messengers." But you would have to be wearing a pretty rigid set of blinders to miss the media's role in our current political mess. Carr claims "most Americans don't watch or pay attention to cable television" -- and that's probably true -- but their elected leaders do. And all of us, even if we never turn on Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly, hear their message filtered through talk radio, local news, op-ed pages and blogs before it's echoed by the "objective" journalists at places like the Times.
What Stewart intuitively understands -- but folks like Carr somehow fail to grasp -- is that the media shape and influence every issue, not only in how they cover it, but in what they choose to cover. The media influence whom we elect to public office, how we debate the most pressing issues of the day ("health care for all" or "death panels"?), and when we go to war. "The press is our immune system," Stewart astutely observed. "If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker."
The logical correlation, then, is that a healthier media is needed to move forward any important issue. Criticizing the media isn't about shooting the messengers; it's about treating the symptoms that are sickening our democracy.
What Stewart seems to be saying to the reporters out there is "media, heal thyself." But the real problem doesn't rest with any single journalist or even media titans like Rupert Murdoch. The problem is the underlying structure.
The media system we have isn't natural; it's the result of politics and policies that are usually made behind closed doors in the public's name but without their consent. If you want better media, you have to have better media policies.
That doesn't mean censoring or interfering with content. It means sensible rules to encourage a diversity of media owners at the local level. It means -- despite all the shots NPR took on Saturday for its bone-headed decision to forbid its employees from attending the rally -- investing in a public media system committed to local newsgathering and freed from the meddling of Washington and Wall Street. And it means pursuing policies that promote universal, affordable Internet access and protecting Net Neutrality to keep information flowing freely online.
It means recognizing that the health of our media system should be at the top of everyone's agenda. To cite one relevant example on the eve of Election Day, ask yourself just who really benefits from all the noxious attack ads that have flooded our airwaves in recent weeks? It's not just Karl Rove.
No one has a bigger stake in the Citizens United decision than the big media companies -- who are raking in hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars from candidates and shadowy "independent" attack groups, even as they abandon any semblance of credible election coverage. The big media companies' complicity in the corruption of our political system should be a national scandal, but what network is going to cover it?
No, instead of helping viewers make sense of the world and cut through the spin, mainstream outlets are turning over their megaphones to charlatans like Beck and Andrew Breitbart -- the conservative impresario who parlayed the malicious framing of the USDA's Shirley Sherrod into a gig as an election-night commentator at ABC News.
Unlike the hundreds of thousands of rally-goers on the Mall last weekend, folks like Breitbart really do want to destroy what's left of the critical and independent press. "I see ABC News has opened a Stockholm bureau," joked media critic Jay Rosen on Twitter. "These people want to destroy you. How hard is that to get?"
The thin-skinned media should be less defensive about Stewart and more attentive to what their dwindling audience is trying to tell them. They don't really hate the media. They just want them to do their job.
Follow Craig Aaron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/notaaroncraig