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The NY Times Is Charmed by Stewart's Shtick on the Mall, Skips Inconvenient Facts

The New York Times was clearly enchanted by Comedy Central host Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" held on the National Mall on Saturday afternoon. Brian Stelter and Sabrina Tavernise reported the story on Sunday: "At Washington Rally by Two Satirists, Thousands - Billions? - Respond."

While they nailed the political tone as "overwhelmingly liberal," it didn't stop them and other Times reporters from enjoying the rally, both in print and through live blogging while hyping the numbers for an event that was a response to one held two months ago in D.C., "Restoring Honor" sponsored by conservative Fox News host Glenn Beck.

The print edition story ran with a photo of Stewart and Stephen Colbert with Yusuf Islam, the former singer Cat Stevens, who supported the deadly fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie in 1989 (more on that later).

Part circus, part satire, part parade, the crowds that flooded the National Mall Saturday for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear made it a political event like no other.

It was a Democratic rally without a Democratic politician, featuring instead two political satirists, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert, who used the stage to rib journalists and fear-mongering politicians, and to argue with each other over the songs "Peace Train" and "Crazy Train."

Though at no point during the show did either man plug a candidate, a strong current of political engagement coursed through the crowd, which stretched several long blocks west of the Capitol, an overwhelming response to a call by Mr. Stewart on his "Daily Show." The turnout clogged traffic and filled subway trains and buses to overflow.

The event, sponsored by Viacom's Comedy Central network and televised live, was viewed by many in the crowd as a counterweight to Restoring Honor, a rally led by the Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck near the Lincoln Memorial two months ago. Some participants staged a protest near a Fox News satellite truck.

The National Park Service did not offer a formal crowd estimate. But Judy McGrath, the chief executive of Viacom's MTV Networks unit, said she had been told by the Parks Service that there were "well over 200,000 people" at the rally. Mr. Colbert offered his own guess in a Twitter message: "Early estimate of crowd size at rally: 6 billion."

For many, the rally on Saturday was an opportunity to take control of the political narrative, if only for one sunny afternoon. Participants, overwhelmingly liberal, wore political buttons, waved flags and carried signs, often with funny messages.


Times reporters were easily amused by signs from the oh-so-clever liberal activists, which certainly wasn't the case at the Tea Party rally:

A cluster of women in their 50s held small white signs that read, "Shrinks for sanity." A man in a fleece jacket held a sign that said, "I can see the real America from my house."

....

Four friends, dressed as giant tea bags in a spoof of the Tea Party, said Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert were the only ones they felt expressed their point of view.

"For everything that's happened in the past two years, 'The Daily Show' is how we cope," said one of the tea bags, S. J. Klein, a 40-year-old man from Anchorage.


There was also comprehensive live blogging of the rally at nytimes.com. From the Comedy Central stage, Adam Savage of Mythbusters estimated the Stewart rally at 150,000, while the Beck crowd was estimated by NBC News at around 300,000 strong. Yet the Times did not live blog "Restoring Honor" or the huge September 12, 2009 Tea Party protest.

On his Twitter feed, reporter Stelter said the "huge crowd on the Metro" reminded him of Inauguration Day, though the actual crowd at the Mall on Saturday was far less than the estimated 1.8 million who came to watch Obama being sworn in.

The Times also dropped its concern for racial diversity, with no mention of the predominantly white crowd at the Mall on Saturday, a mainstay of coverage of Tea Party gatherings and "Restoring Honor," which Kate Zernike described on August 29 as an "overwhelmingly white and largely middle-aged crowd."

Reporter Dave Itzkoff's live blogging was moderately cynical. Yet when Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, appeared on stage to perform the hippie anthem "Peace Train," Itzkoff missed the irony of the singer appearing at a rally to restore sanity. He failed to mention the 1989 controversy over comments Yusuf made in support of the fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini that novelist Salman Rushdie be killed for insulting Muhammad in "The Satanic Verses." The Times own headline from May 23, 1989 made it clear: "Cat Stevens Gives Support To Call for Death of Rushdie."

A post by Times media reporter Brian Stelter on Saturday evening, "Rally Includes Lesson in Media Criticism 301," called Stewart's closing remarks an "engrossing act of media criticism." (Apparently the Times doesn't ignore all critics, only conservative ones.) According to Stelter, the crowd also picked up on "the media's flaws," Times-speak for shouting about Fox News and Glenn Beck in front of the channel's satellite truck.

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear will be remembered, in part, as an expensive, engrossing act of media criticism.

Jon Stewart, the comedian who hosted the Comedy Central rally alongside Stephen Colbert, spoke about the press as an "immune system" for the country - one that he evidently thinks is extremely sick. His words echoed up and down the National Mall on Saturday afternoon. National Journal wound up wondering if the event should have been called the Rally to Restore Journalism.

Mr. Stewart has ventured into serious media criticism before on "The Daily Show" and in appearances on CNN and Fox News. But Saturday's comments were notable because hundreds of journalists were in attendance, standing on a press riser near the stage and interviewing rallygoers in the crowd.

The media's flaws also came up time and time again in the crowd. Some rallygoers who brought anti-Fox News and anti-Glenn Beck signs staged an impromptu protest near a Fox News satellite truck.

- Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter.