Much of Jon Stewart’s schtick involves critiquing the media, but those who question Stewart face the wrath of his devoted followers.
At his Oct. 30 “Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity” where he spoke before approximately 200,000 supporters, Stewart focused on the press, or as he described it, “the country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator.” The rally took aim at the news media’s focus on sensationalist scoops and divisive politics, but New York Times media columnist David Carr felt that the event avoided more relevant issues.
“Here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him,” Carr wrote.
Though he took issue with the rally’s focus on media, Carr’s assessment of the event was, by no means, overwhelmingly negative. He referred to Stewart’s remarks as “a compelling, sharply delivered critique that went down well on the Mall and on television.”
In spite of the respectful tone of his column, Carr received hundreds of e-mail responses critical of his piece. “I’m probably up over 400 responses now, and they’re still coming in at the rate of like one every half-an-hour and at the start, they were unbelievably ferocious,” Carr said in a phone conversation with The Observer. Along with the more virulent messages, Carr said he also got “hundreds and hundreds of them that are super reasonable.”
“I would say it was an outsized response, it may be due to the imprecision of the column, but it’s mostly due to the fact that I chose a topic that many people consider sacrosanct … To many people, Jon Stewart is a kind of Baby Jesus. He’s an important corrective on the media and political industrial complex, but that doesn’t mean he’s right all the time,” Carr told The Observer.
Carr’s brush with the Stewart faithful comes just shy of a month after CNN anchor Rick Sanchez was fired after a controversial radio appearance where he suggested that Jews control CNN and called Stewart “a bigot.” Sanchez implied that Stewart is close-minded and doesn’t allow a diverse selection of guests on his show.
“Yeah, I think he’s a bigot … I think he looks at the world through his mom who was a schoolteacher and his dad who was a physicist, or something like that,” Sanchez said in the interview.
The incident immediately caused a media firestorm. Though his comments were clearly inappropriate, CNN gave Sanchez the axe with astonishing speed. He was fired by the network less than 24 hours after the interview began making headlines in the blogosphere. Sanchez’ contract with CNN had recently been renewed.
Irin Carmon, a writer at Jezebel.com, didn’t lose her job after pointing out the lack of diversity on The Daily Show, but she still faced intense backlash when she wrote a post that called Stewart’s show “a boys’ club where women’s contributions are often ignored and dismissed.” Carmon’s story included multiple interviews with former The Daily Show contributors.
“Particularly once The Daily Show issued its open letter a while after the piece ran, I got a seemingly unending stream of aggressive, hostile e-mails from readers who seemed unfamiliar with the site. A typical one had the subject line, ‘How does it feel to be put in your place?’ if I recall correctly,” Carmon said in an e-mail to The Observer.
Carmon said she felt the feedback she received from Stewart fans seemed out of place with the Daily Show anchor’s public persona. “It’s interesting to me that a media figure whose message is theoretically about critical thinking and, more recently, civility, can inspire such knee-jerk defensiveness,” Carmon told The Observer.
According to Carr, the protectiveness of Stewart’s fan base isn’t unprecedented. “Any time you get on a cult figure, if you were to write about in vaguely negative terms about Martin Scorsese, or Jeff Tweedy, or Mad Men, or Matt Weiner you’d engage the cult … if I write about Palin or Glenn Beck it happens too,” Carr said. Carr’s comparison of Stewart and Beck is apt. It’s also dangerous for the The Daily Show host. Stewart’s rally originated as a spoof of Beck’s Aug. 28 “Restoring Honor” event. With the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear Stewart has shown that he has political power and legions of followers. The question is whether Stewart can retain his position as an anti-establishment media critic as he increasingly becomes surrounded by a cult of personality.