When Jon Stewart Screwed Up

Certainly, Jon Stewart deserves tremendous praise for the work he did on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show during the past decade and a half to mock the malevolent and irritate the ignorant (although Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting does have a point when he notes that Stewart could have been more aggressive in calling out the folks pushing us into war back in late-2002). However, there is one aspect of Stewart’s legacy that deserves to be scorned by history: the illogical absurdity that was 2010’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

The rally was borne of the same spirit of short-sightedness that underscored Barack Obama’s 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention: the false belief that we are one nation, indivisible, instead of the harsh reality that we are two nations, a moral, progressive one and an amoral, reactionary one—and that the moral, progressive one must politically and culturally conquer and subdue the amoral, reactionary one.

HBO’s Bill Maher delivered a stirring critique of the event, but the best condemnation came from then-MSNBC host Keith Olbermann:

Embedded in [Stewart’s] message is an equivocation of the right-wing cable news network Fox and the one that‘s on the left, this one, as if we‘re each equidistant from sanity, each equally to blame for the division Stewart talks about. What are the odds of two cable channels on opposite sides of the political spectrum being exactly the same in every other respect? Exactly as bad in dividing the country? Exactly as bad in twisting facts? Exactly as bad in demonizing religious minorities? Exactly as bad in defending the corporatization of the country?

What are the odds that a network, this one, which acquired a progressive bent [inadvertently] after I took a stand against the Iraq War that is now the definition of mainstream, would be exactly as bad as a network founded by a conservative billionaire who hired a former Nixon campaign man to run it for the express purpose of espousing the same right-wing view of the world that the same company loses millions of dollars a year pushing a failed newspaper with, and which then gave millions of dollars to the Republican Party apparatus this year? Sticking up for the powerless is not the moral equivalent of sticking up for the powerful…

[Why does Stewart make] the assumption that if the good guys stand down, the bullies will, too? I never found that to work with actually bullies on the playground. I haven‘t found it to work in this equation either.

If the rally wasn’t bad enough, Stewart then had the audacity to lecture and scold MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow—the gold standard of civility, decency, humility, morality and decorum in American broadcast media—for minor rhetorical infractions in a November 2010 interview. The interview was Stewart at his most pompous, smug and self-righteous; at times, he seemingly came close to saying, “Rachel, I’m just better than you.”

Again, give Stewart his props for the positive things he has done over the years. He has inspired a new generation of commentators who will continue to call out political perversity and media mendacity. However, the man was not without his flaws—and the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was a gigantic one. As Olbermann, Maher and Maddow have long argued, sanity has to defeat fear, not figure out some way to get along with it.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.