“If we amplify everything we hear nothing.” — Jon Stewart
Last weekend I went to a rally hosted by two television comedians. So did over 200,000 other people. What made my being there odd, however, is that I have not had cable television service for two years.
I still own a television and watch DVD’s on it, but the rest of my media I get from the Internet. Even that is limited exclusively to 30-Rock, The Daily Show, and a little Colbert Report. Truly, those three shows are the only ones I watch. My reason for ditching the cable wasn’t some self-righteous holier-than-thou anti-TV sentiment (I actually enjoyed hours upon hours of trashy talk shows and demeaning reality programming). I just really couldn’t afford cable TV at the moment.
So you can imagine my excitement when I recently stayed in a luxury hotel room, complete with terrycloth robes and, yes, CABLE! I immediately hopped on the bed and flipped on the tube, leaning back on the bleached sheets to bask in the mothering glow of American culture.
But the light was harsh: When I had access to TV all the time I didn’t realize that commercials are more and more manipulative and multiplying, like rabbits in spring. I flipped through a few channels to see if I could find programs that weren’t directed at making me feel extremes. I decided that I would surely be safe from this Zen-less endless stream of manipulation if I just watched the news. After just a few minutes I realized something: the same conflict viewers seek in reality drama, they also seek from their news programs. CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and other sources directly profit from creating mountains out of molehills, and Armageddon-esque androids out of mountains. They work hard to make you feel that some major event is just minutes away and if you turn the channel… you’ll miss it!
I realized, in that hotel room, that I would probably never watch television again. Having separated myself from its daily barrage for so long, my system was more sensitive, more aware, and I could see with greater clarity what was invisible without stepping back.
I found at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear others who shared my disgust, including Stewart. Sure, The Daily Show directly profits from conflict, but not in the sense that opinion and news shows do. News channels now use hyperbole, charged language, unscientific polling, and represent opinion shows as ‘news.’ They take the most dramatic extremes, put them side by side, and ring the bell for round one. As Stewart said, “The press can hold its magnifying 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 sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.” Compromise, moderation, and empathy don’t make for profitable television.
Stewart’s profits, in comparison, come from parodying hyperbole. He counts on his viewers’ desire to see through tactics news channels use to manipulate. So for him to step back and say to the 200,000+ people on the National Mall on October 30th, in essence, the press has got a job bigger than profit, was a powerful thing. It was the first step (in what I hope is a series of steps) towards greater responsibility and accountability in the press. They are, after all, specifically named in the constitution as an important democratic institution. Their health is tied to the health of our democracy.
Perhaps Stewart’s greatest point, however, was that the picture of America that sells soap or gold or beer, isn’t even true. He used the metaphor of cars merging into a tunnel one by one, allowing their fellow traveler the space to go and then taking their turn. He reminded us that this daily and simple co-operation (often happening without a thought) is who we really are. Stewart closed in the way only he can, linking the seriousness of his purpose with the humor that helps us see its truth, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.”
Watch Jon Stewart’s closing speech here.
(With editorial help from Scott Illingworth)
Jax Jackson is an actor, activist, and active resident of New York City. Scott Illingwoth is a theatre educator, freelance director, and movement teacher in New York City.