I quit The Daily Show cold turkey this summer. I had stopped watching the cable news networks long before that because I couldn’t take the yelling, the distorting, and the shallow reporting anymore. And unfortunately, The Daily Show just kept reminding me that what I hated was there, unrelenting and unchanged. Jon Stewart thoroughly depantsed Jim Cramer in an interview; he went right back to his boobish antics on CNBC. The show exposed Fox News’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal hypocrisy; the network’s ratings stood strong. Stewart mocked Glenn Beck’s chalkboard hysteria in an impression so spot-on it might as well have been the real thing; some weeks later, Beck trotted out his chalkboard on the National Mall to many thousands of devoted supporters. So at some point I just couldn’t take any of it anymore, neither the inanity of the TV news media nor the seemingly ineffectual mockery of it. I was just exasperated by the lack of consequences for what I perceived as journalistic injustice and felt alienated by seeing it paraded on TV so much.
Then I heard rumblings about a rally, at first a (seemingly) grassroots movement to encourage Stephen Colbert to host a Rally to Restore Truthiness, then the real deal, an official announcement of the Sanity and Fear rallies. I was highly intrigued. This, I thought, this promised to finally…um…er, what exactly? I didn’t really know. But the call to restore sanity spoke directly to my frustrations with the karmic illogic that had driven me away from anything related to basic cable news. I was mostly excited that this was to be a public gathering, not a TV show, where I could share thoughts in the moment with like-minded people, rather than just yelling at my TV screen.
So I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Did it reinvigorate my faith that blowhard news pundits would be shamed into doing credible work and real journalism would rise up? No, not at all. In fact, as affecting as Jon Stewart’s ending speech was, its substance was really no different than what he had been saying on his show when I stopped watching. But thankfully, at least, my feeling of alienation was obliterated by the roar of the crowd, the graciousness of the gathered, and the recognition that it wasn’t just me and my TV screen in a battle, it was a huge group of us (plus innumerable signs) yearning for rationality and accountability.
In fact, skimming tweets after the rally, it became overwhelmingly evident that the TV experience was quite different than the live experience. Yes, both at home and on the Mall, there were moments of boredom (turns out John Legend is a Chicago Cubs-caliber rally killer). But to cite just one example, the bit I saw mocked the most on Twitter, the Mythbusters-directed wave, was actually a joy to experience live (in my section of the crowd, at least). It offered our first glimpse on the video screens of the whole assembled audience, which resulted in a collective “Woah,” and waiting first for the wave to get to you and then for it to finally end after you really hit home what a mass of humanity we were. Ok, I’ll grant that the group sounds thing fell pretty flat live (coordinating movements with strangers is fine; making weird sounds with them is uncomfortable). But the group jump was followed by awestruck, giddy laughter as we now not just saw but fully felt our mass together. That visceral feeling of unity was exactly what I traveled to experience firsthand (even if it was measured by science as no more impactful than a minor car crash). It was what I had lost from being immersed in the divisiveness of TV news images and online comments sections. The subsequent events and Stewart’s eloquent final speech also reminded me that recognizing the problems of political discourse doesn’t have to come with only misery attached. It can come with pride in the collective acknowledgment of what is still just and a defiant spirit of hope (yes, I got a hopium contact high out there).
Again, I don’t expect a single change in the news media or politics or human relations in the wake of the Rally for Sanity. It really did just boil down to a party where we reveled in self-congratulatory agreeability for a little while. I do hope that I can carry the spirit it captured back home with me, though, and translate it into a renewed faith in the power of television shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to make us more self-aware of the discourses around us, both on screens and right next to us, and the power of sharing a public moment with strangers.
(This report was made possible in part by support from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame.)