Can you summon a movement based on not much more than the force of your personality, a vague identification, and talking about how the media sucks? Sarah Palin and Jon Stewart both already have.
It's not as outlandish a comparison as it seems. The Times' David Carr argues that hosting a 200,000-person rally on the Mall qualifies Stewart as "a political leader." Meanwhile, Palin quit her job as an actual politician to be something between an advocate and an entertainer. Both seem to prefer media criticism to political content.
Palin's longstanding tactic, lately brought into high gear, is to blame the low standards of those "corrupt bastards" (her words this weekend) in the media. Here she is on Greta Van Susteren's show, responding to a Politico story on how the GOP establishment wants her to go away. Fed phrase-by-phrase by Van Susteren, she evades any question of whether she'll run and whether there's any truth to the resistance described in the piece by engaging in a pious lecture on anonymous sourcing.
"That's why I don't talk to some of these reporters who are a part of this yellow journalism world of not using name sources. I think it's very unprofessional," she said. "I learned back in the day that who, what, when, where, why of journalism. You report that facts; you let other people decide what their opinion is going to be."
In his Times column, Carr pointed out that Stewart's main message yesterday was that he disliked "the one American institution that everyone can agree to hate: The Media." The main criticism boiled down to this:
The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems and illuminate problems heretofore unseen, or it can use its magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous-flaming-ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.
Carr remarked that "attacking the message would have been bad manners, so [Stewart] stuck with the messengers." Did 200,000 people really come to Washington to say they were tired of all the bullshit on cable news, or was that a stand-in for the feeling that "we" somehow aren't being represented by the mainstream narrative? Or, um, the lamestream media?
But Palin and Stewart are both messengers. She's on News Corp's payroll at Fox News, and her every word on Twitter or Facebook or at rallies is magnified by the rest of the messaging machine. Stewart has had a platform on Viacom's Comedy Central for over a decade. He wins Emmys and has bestselling books and hosted the Oscars. As much as they both fashion themselves as outsiders speaking truth to power, their very existence depends on the multinational conglomerates that give their message scale.
And, of course, on the viewers who buy into it and identify with the rhetoric of these pseudo-events, apparently drawn more by a longing for authenticity than any set of ideas.
But wait, you say. Stewart stands for critical thinking, for research of how politicians lie and contradict themselves, for going to the record and being rational. And you would be mostly right. But somehow the natural response to all that enthusiasm is to say... what?
Pluto is a planet? Arrested Development is better than Two And A Half Men? (Although that's true.) A statement about how we should say things is about form, not content, and it's an easier position than getting in the muck and seeing if something works.
Compare that to the criticism that even as Palin wildly waves the flag of the right wing and drops Reagan's name, she seems to stand for not much more than a vague marshaling of political anger and entitled nostalgia.
It's a posture, accessorized with cheerful Just Folks pep and family values pablum. But as corporate-sponsored cults of personality go, is one composed of semi-earnestness, default irony, and inside cultural references that different, aside from aesthetics and place on the high-low cultural continuum? It doesn't feel that way as long as their leaders seem to stand for little more than themselves — and the unformed idea that they're better than what's being said.
Rally to Shift the Blame [NYT]