Comedy Central's Stewart Says Press, Politicians Are Creating Extremism

Comedy Central television hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert criticized the media at their “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” in Washington, blaming the press and politicians for creating a political atmosphere dominated by extremist rhetoric.

“The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false,” Stewart, 47, told a crowd gathered on the National Mall yesterday for an afternoon of musical performances and comedy by the two television political satirists. “We work together to get things done every damn day.”

A largely young and white audience packed the mall for afternoon of comedy and performances by musicians Sheryl Crow, The Roots, Mavis Staples, Kid Rock, Tony Bennett and Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. Colbert, 46, dashed onstage in a red, white and blue caped costume, saying he was there to “promote fear.”

Stewart, host of the nightly comedy program “The Daily Show,” promoted the rally as a “million moderate march” designed to counter extremist rhetoric dominating the national political discussion.

Stewart said it was not his place to encourage people to vote in the Nov. 2 congressional elections. “I think people should do what moves them,” he told reporters after the rally.

Political Clarity

Stewart said he’s striving to give viewers “a certain clarity” about politics in his show. Yet he said it’s “hard to know” whether he’s doing a better job than the cable news programs he criticized.

The event mimics the “Restoring Honor” rally held Aug. 28 in Washington by Glenn Beck, a Fox News commentator popular with Tea Party and other conservative activists such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

“I came in retaliation of Glenn Beck,” said Leanna Norwood, 19, who came from Pennsylvania. “He takes everything so seriously, so extreme.”

Stewart urged the crowd to tune out extremist political rhetoric and work together to repair the country.

“If we are to get through the darkness and into the light we have to work together,” Stewart told the crowd. “Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land, sometimes it’s just New Jersey.”

Dueling Rallies

The event was structured as dueling rallies, with Stewart urging sanity and Colbert promoting fear.

Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report,” interrupted a performance of the song “Peace Train” by Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, by shouting “Someone pull the emergency brake on that rainbow moonbeam choo-choo.”

Colbert introduced his own musical guest, metal rock musician Ozzy Osbourne, who performed “Crazy Train.”

Later, as Stewart gave “medals of reasonableness,” Colbert handed out “fear medals” that showed a naked man running with scissors.

Stewart awarded one of his medals to Velma Hart, a supporter of President Barack Obama’s who questioned the president’s economic policies at a Sept. 20 town hall meeting. Stewart praised Hart for asking the president “a series of tough questions with respect.”

Facebook Honored

Colbert awarded a medal to Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., saying it was “because he values his privacy much more than he values yours.” The social networking site has come under fire for transmitting personal information to advertisers and Internet tracking firms.

Democrats say they hope the rally will energize young, Hispanic and black voters -- three constituencies crucial to the party’s 2008 presidential win -- to return to the polls on Nov. 2. Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan publication based in Washington, predicted that Republicans would gain at least 55 U.S. House seats, awarding the party control of the body. Democrats are more likely to hold control of the U.S. Senate, according to analysts.

Thousands arrived hours before the noon rally began, passing time watching clips of Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” on giant television screens set up on the mall. Many carried signs with messages such as “I’m Not Afraid of Muslims, Tea Parties, Gays.”

“This is the Woodstock of our generation,” said David Moudy, 23, an Iraq war veteran who traveled to the rally with his siblings, referring to the 1969 three-day outdoor music festival attended by about 500,000 young people near Woodstock, New York.

Muslims Aren’t Bad

Stewart invited retired basketball player Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, a Muslim, to counter anti-Islam sentiments.

Osama bin Laden is a specific person,” Stewart said. “But there are plenty of Muslim people that are not bad and that you would like.”

Tony Fox, executive vice president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which owns Comedy Central and helped organize the rally, estimated that the crowd was more than 250,000 people. NBC estimated the crowd at tens of thousands.

Arianna Huffington, owner of liberal media website the Huffington Post, said her group sponsored 200 buses that transported more than 10,000 people to the rally. Moveon.org and Democracy Now, liberal advocacy groups, handed out flyers advertising their organizations at the rally.

“The Daily Show” has averaged about 1.1 million viewers aged 18 to 49 this year, according to Nielsen Co., and is one of the most-watched late-night shows among viewers 18 to 34 years of age.

Stewart is more popular among Democrats and independents than Republicans, according to an Oct. 7-10 Bloomberg National Poll. The survey by Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co. found that 43 percent of Democrats and independents had a favorable view of Stewart, compared with 20 percent of Republicans.

In an Oct. 27 appearance on the “Daily Show,” Obama defended his record and encouraged voters to reelect Democrats from conservative districts who backed the party agenda even though they knew it might hurt them politically.

-- Editors: Ann Hughey, Mark Rohner

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.