Virginia’s online voter registration will be extended after a system crash. Montgomery County keeps Marriott headquarters local with big incentives. And Washington D.C. dukes it out with Washington state over their shared moniker.
Jon Stewart says his Rally to Restore Sanity is pure entertainment, but is it? Coming on the heels of Glenn Beck’s DC rally in August, many people view this event as a direct response. We explore the line between satire and reality and ask when humor crosses the line into politics.
- Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher Artist-in-Residence, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Political Cartoonist, The Economist
- Todd Gitlin Professor of Journalism and Sociology, Columbia University; co-author "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election" (Simon & Schuster); Long-time liberal activist
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. From Mark Twain to Will Rogers, Art Buchwald to Garry Trudeau, satire has long been a part of the American conversation, poking fun at excess and folly and politics and culture. Today, two of our most popular satirists ply their trade on late-night television. Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," and Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report" poke fun at inconsistencies and hypocrisies in American politics.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, the pair is leaving the studio to host a rally on the National Mall this Saturday, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. The Comedy Central duo insist the event is entertainment, but is it? Coming on the heels of Glenn Beck's Rally to Restore Honor, many people see this weekend's event as a direct response to the conservative gathering. The rally is fueling a debate over when a satirist becomes a political figure. Are Stewart and Colbert crossing the line from humor into advocacy? Or is this just a big live on the Mall daily show?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOf course, you can call with your opinions or comments at 800-433-8850 or by going to our website, kojoshow.org. Joining us by telephone is Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher. He is artist in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and political cartoonist for The Economist. Kal, good to talk to you again.
MR. KEVIN "KAL" KALLAUGHERHey, Kojo.
NNAMDITodd Gitlin also joins us from studios in New York City. He's a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election." He's also a long-time activist. Todd Gitlin, thank you for joining us.
MR. TODD GITLINThanks very much for having me.
NNAMDIWith the rally just two days away, a number of critics have complained that Stewart and Colbert have crossed the line separating comedy from political activism. Starting with you Kal, do you think there is, in fact, a line?
KALLAUGHERWell, you know, if there is a line, I don't know exactly where it is. But I will tell you this, is that both Colbert and Jon Stewart have done an amazing job of pushing that line all over the place during their, you know, their years on TV. You know, I think back to what it was like before Jon Stewart, you know, 12 years ago, and there was no sort of real strong articulate satire on television at that point. And if somebody said to you, oh, we're going to bring a guy on and he's going to cover things in the way that Colbert has done over the past decade, first of all, nobody would believe you.
KALLAUGHERAnd then, they would be making all sorts of accusations about, oh, I don't know, this is too strong for TV. I don't think we can pull this off. The same sort of, you know, nervous thoughts that people are having about this rally. I have a feeling that these guys are going to pull this off and all of this discussion will be moot for a few days.
NNAMDIDo you think there is a line, Todd Gitlin? And if so, where is it? Or is it a shifting line?
GITLINI don't think there's a line at all. I think there's something primitive, undeveloped about our thinking if we think that a politician is somebody who is a professional devoid of, I suppose, ideas, performance smarts and the ability to articulate what a lot of people are feeling. Whereas, presumably a satirist or somebody who really doesn't care what he's talking about, he's simply accumulating eyeballs on television and clipping coupons. This is an outlandish idea and I think it reflects something of the childishness of our understanding of politics. This is after a culture which a politician is a deplorable figure in general and popular feeling.
GITLINSo, I mean, this creates a lot of problems for people who are, let's say, swimming around in the area that isn't quite over-aligned, but it's sort of a hazy, you know, a sort of osmosis zone, a blurred area of crossover. And it takes a lot of adroitness to maneuver, a lot of agility. I think that Colbert and Stewart will have to show their maximum agility on Saturday. But the notion that there's a line, I find just unsustainable.
NNAMDIKal is a political cartoonist for The Economist magazine. You are a practitioner of satire. Do you think it's possible to be a satirist without having a point of view?
KALLAUGHERNo. You know, the whole thing about satire is, it's humor with a point. And this is in contrast to, you know, your typical cartoon -- I'm sorry, typical humorists, people who make jokes about what's going on in the news today. Now, the satirist is actually trying to drive a discussion on issues. Maybe make the world a better place, but using a negative form, which is satire, which is making fun of -- I remember Jon Stewart sort of describes himself as -- you know, at one point, when he set it off as this guy at the back of the classroom throwing spitballs.
KALLAUGHERI'd use a better metaphor, which is that satirists are sheep dogs, where we want the masses to move in a certain direction, but we don't go in front with a flag and say follow us. Instead, we go behind everybody like sheep dogs and bite them in their rear end and hopefully push them in the right direction.
NNAMDITodd Gitlin, using satire as a political tool goes back a long way in the history of human communication, at least to the ancient Greeks. Do you think satire always has a political, social or cultural mission behind it?
GITLINGood satire does. In the absence of it, we get bland late-night, you know, Monica Lewinsky jokes, which is not satire. It is spitballs. Actually, I want to, if I may, comment on Jon Stewart's spitballs moment. I think that's actually a dodge. I think he may think of himself that way, but what is clear, I think, is that it serves a certain image he has of himself to think -- to propose himself as a thrower of spitballs.
GITLINHe does not throw all those spitballs, he spit -- a thrower of spitballs is indiscriminate. He's discriminating. What I mean is that he is -- he and his people -- we'll call them all Jon Stewart, I mean, the whole crowd who writes this stuff. They, I think, have a lot of insight into the process by which political leaders here and sometimes elsewhere, very much elsewhere, are predicating their careers on distortions and ignorance and the ways in which the media actually serve them, serve their obfuscations and evasions.
GITLINSo, you know, to me, they're unmaskers of particular styles of power wielding and political talk, which are fabulously in need of debunking and criticism. And that's what they do. And, you know, Mark Twain, you mentioned before as an exemplary figure in American history. I think most Americans who grew up as I did thinking of, you know, Mark Twain as a writer of children's stories had no idea how politically engaged Mark Twain was. Mark Twain was one of the founders of the Anti-Imperialist League of 1898.
GITLINInterestingly enough, he actually came out -- he was initially for the Spanish-American War. But what he saw and heard about what was going on in the Philippines and so on horrified him. He wrote absolutely scathing, devastating -- not laugh lines, but overpowering attacks on American massacres in the Philippines, the racism that was implicit in the war. And later, he was major -- wrote a major exposé of King Leopold's atrocities in the Congo. I mean, this was not, you know, just the avuncular guy with a big funny mustache and a white suit. This was an engaged person.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Todd Gitlin. He's a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and a long-time activist. We are talking about satire and politics, especially in the context of this weekend's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or the March to Keep Fear Alive by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, respectively. Also joining us by telephone is Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher. He is an artist in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a political cartoonist for The Economist. You can call us with your questions or comments about this issue at 800-433-8850. Here is John in Bethesda, Md. John, your turn.
JOHNHi, Kojo, thanks. I guess I'll just make two brief points. One is, if people were to complain that the upcoming rally shouldn't take place, I think it's simply the antithesis to the Glenn Beck rally. It's just -- it's comedic effect. However, I think the larger issue is, is it important -- how should I put this? In a way, it reminds of what Lincoln Steffens has said in his autobiography about it. If you can make people feel hopeless, then that's to your enemy's advantage.
JOHNBut let me turn that to say, if you can get people to laugh at a problem, at a political problem, then thereby scoff at it, that's not helping make it go away. So it seems to me that it's actually -- the most important thing is what does the audience of such rallies do with this humor? Do they laugh it off or does that empower to get up and vote on voting day?
NNAMDIIs that too specific a response to expect, Kal?
KALLAUGHERWell, you know, as a satirist, you kind of start every day hoping that you're going to change the world, right? You know, but at the end of the day, not be too disappointed that nothing takes place. And I think that it's less that -- when I think about what I love about these guys, it's their job is like a cartoonist. And Jon does sort of describe himself as an editorial cartoonist. Their job is not to make people laugh, but to make people think using humor, but using it as a vehicle, you know, either for a message or for, you know, a point.
KALLAUGHERIn fact, if you watch "The Daily Show," the way that he marches through his 22 minutes is that they normally go serious point, laugh, serious point, laugh, serious point. They use the humor as a kind of a lubricant for the important stuff that's coming through. So I think if people -- the fact that we're having this discussion, I think that he's already succeeded. And this is what I love, is that, you know, we're in this business of just trying to get people to talk and to think and to address these issues. And some of this is the discussion building up to this.
KALLAUGHERI can't wait to see what those discussions are going to be like after his piece. But the build up to it is, what about the middle? What about the extremes? What's going on? Let's talk about satire, all these important parts of our democracy. I think he's succeeded already.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. Let's hear a little bit about what Jon Stewart himself had to say when he announced his Rally to Return Sanity on "The Daily Show.'
MR. JON STEWARTWe are going to do this. The forms have been filled out. The checks have been written. It's going to be about two to three hours one Saturday in our nation's capital in late October for some nice people to get together for fun, maybe some special guests and some great conversation. It will be like being in a chatroom, but real.
MR. JON STEWARTI don't know, seems like a pretty reasonable request. See you October 30th on the National Mall, spreading the timeless message. Take it down a notch for America.
NNAMDIGentleman, several of the nation's top media seem to be treating this rally as a political event and reminding staffers that they should not participate in any way. Excuse me, that suggests support for the cause, even if it's not quite clear what the cause is. Memos from various news media, the New York Times, NPR and others have been sending -- have been sent to journalists indicating that they -- if they're covering this event, that's one thing, as observers, but they should not participate in any way shape or form.
NNAMDIAnd of course, one of the things that Jon Stewart always says is that this is a fake news show. It's really not satirizing politicians as much as it's satirizing the news media and how the news media do not cover politicians. What do you say to that, Todd Gitlin?
GITLINWell, I don't buy it, actually. I buy the part that Jon Stewart's saying -- and many people have said it's really a fake news show. It's more -- it's far more than a fake news show. It is a criticism of the way we do business, including wielding power and telling stories in this country. And this gets me actually to something that I'm eager to see on Saturday on the mall. Because there's a real tension, as they brilliantly acknowledge, by announcing they were going to have two separate rallies. There are actually two different positions being stated here.
GITLINJon Stewart's position, which you just stated, is we're going to take it down. Steven Colbert's not a guy who takes it down. In fact, he's playing a right wing blow hard whose entire reason for being is to take it up and create fire storms of wildness. And so marching to restore fear is actually -- that's not a satirical statement. It's not an indiscriminate satirical statement. It's actually -- or it's not merely that. It's a recognition that the whole project of the right wing in this country is to panic people. It's to panic them about immigrants. It's to panic them about Muslims. It's to panic them about the Chinese. It's to panic them about, you know, Barack Obama, for that matter.
GITLINAnd, you know, invading (sounds like) Kenyans and marauding socialists and weather under grounders and the rest. I think it's going to be very interesting to see how they manage that because there is this ambiguity between them.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll get to your calls. If the lines are busy, and for the time being they are, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there or send us a tweet at kojoshow. You can send an e-mail to email@example.com. We're discussing this weekend's rallies and whether they cross a line from satire into, well, something else. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're exploring Satire and Politics in the context of this weekend's rallies by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, either to restore sanity or to keep fear alive. And inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Todd Gitlin. He's a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and a long time activist. And Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher, who is artist in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a political cartoonist for the Economist. On to the phones. Here is Ed in Davidsonville, Md. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDYes. Your question posed whether this is satire or something else. I would say it's satire and something more. The Glenn Beck rally reached a point where, I think, it absolutely provoked a response, you know, demanded a response from somebody. And these guys are stepping up. The way in which they've played off one another and building this thing is, you know, is a promotional -- demonstrates promotion genius that certainly, you know, rivals what Glenn Beck is able to do. But I think we are really -- yes.
NNAMDIEd, I -- we lost the last part of your statement. I think we are really, what?
EDI think we're really seeing something that is quite different from simple satire. They have reached the point of the necessary response to the Glenn Beck rally. Let's face it. All these guys are entertainers. Glenn Beck as well. And the response is -- his rally was sufficiently large, that I feel that it had to be responded to and these guys are stepping up to do it.
NNAMDIIndeed. We got an e-mail from Steve in Maryland who says, "I concur with those who say that Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are of a piece. Does anyone really think Glenn Beck has some special status as politician or political? He's a radio and TV personality. Stewart and Colbert are his colleagues. Think about it, there's irony and humor in that alone." And getting back to you, Kal, it certainly seems like a lot of people are approaching this event as the political left's response to Glenn Beck's restoring honor rally on the mall in August.
KALLAUGHERYeah, you know, they certainly are. I've noticed that, you know, Jon Stewart has been trying to back away from that, saying that instead the -- he'd like this idea of a rally 'cause it's kind of a construct for possible opportunities for satire and humor. And in fact, Todd's point of the kind of the tension between, you know, knocking it down with Stewart blowing it back up with Colbert, in fact, is a fabulous opportunity for satire and humor. Humor usually resides in a place of tension. In fact, the show is, being that they're live four days a week, has a kind of tension that you have when somebody's coming live. Things could possibly go wrong.
KALLAUGHERAnd people want to see spontaneity. I think, part of the magic of this event, part of the attention of this event is that it's -- everything is going on a gigantic scale. There's a lot of things that could go wrong at this event where they could disappoint people because they don't pull it off or they hit a sour note or the fact that, you know, we have all these kind of comparisons with Beck and then that would be a plus and minus. It's this tension that actually makes comedians and good performers do better. And I think that the, you know, they're -- both camps are probably quite nervous about this huge escalation that they're -- project that they're putting together. But at the same time, I think it's probably going to be a huge success.
NNAMDITodd Gitlin, you're planning to come to Washington from New York to attend the rally. You mentioned early that you wanted to see in some respects, how they pull it off. What's the draw for you?
GITLINSomebody stepped up, as somebody previously said. There's a big whole in American political life. The liberal sanity-based community representative who is capable of rallying people who people see themselves in, who people admire for their acumen, their intelligence and their passion. There is actually nobody -- it's hard to think, for example, of a U.S. Senator who could pull this off. We don't have, God knows, revered writers or religious figures who, by themselves, can draw a crowd. So I think that it's quite right that you have a sanity-based community that needs to rally.
GITLINAnd these guys pulled it off. Now, that said, one thing I'll be fascinated to see is how they manage what we just heard was this show of tension and the number of ways in which they could make false steps. There are a number of things that people in the crowd could do to attract the attention of Fox News in a way that's deeply unflattering to their cause and to Stewart and Colbert. Typically it, you know, if it bleeds, it leads. If it's garish and grotesque, then it's a great fodder for Sean Hannity. But, you know, I think there's that strange ambiguity that serves them in this very eerie moment when really Barack Obama is the only national spokesman for a point of view which is not a crackpot point of view.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Ed. Here is Maurine in Washington, D.C. Maurine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAURINEYes, hi. I just have a comment. Noam Chomsky has written extensively on propaganda that is perpetuated by incumbent politicians that make it into the main stream media through television, radio, internet blogs, whatever. And I think that Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are serving a very important purpose here, which Noam Chomsky has encouraged the thinking, reading -- the thinking audience member out there to employ and that is what Chomsky refers to as the skeptical reflex.
MAURINESo therefore, when we Americans are subjected to news from mainstream media, political rallies or whatever, fear factors or whatever, we should step back and intellectually and thoughtfully analyze what we're hearing, what is the source of what is being said and employ Chomsky's recommended skeptical reflex. And I will just finish my comment by saying that I think Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, Daily employees, that technique encourages us to use that skeptical reflex in our thinking. That's my comment.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about that, Todd Gitlin?
GITLINI think Chomsky's a very crude thinker and his analysis is not helpful in this situation. I don't need Noam Chomsky to tell me that we should have a skeptical reflex. So there are far more astute analyses of American media to read.
NNAMDIHere is an e-mail we got from Jonathan in Washington, D.C. "From where I sit, it's black and white. Liberals and conservatives alike are a disappointment to the public. For that reason, the real danger isn't a Tea Party run government. It's the apathy that brings them to power. The duel rally is about reengaging people through humor and entertainment in a way that is thoughtful and motivating. It's about going beyond the B-S by making fun of it and the whole messy farce that is politics at the moment." Your take on that, Kal?
KALLAUGHERWell, you know, I'm a big fan of satire. There was a, you know, a time just a few years back, Kojo, where there was academics analyzing Jon Stewart and wondering if he was bad for America. That is, young people were allegedly getting all of their news from Jon Stewart rather than getting it from reading traditional news outlets. My feeling is, any way that you can engage people into the democratic process is a good thing. And I think humor and satire is kind of a gateway drug into current events because by using humor, you bring people in. And to quote the great 19th century British philosopher, Mary Poppins, "A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." So with a little humor you actually get people to ingest the serious stuff and get thinking.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. I got to step back for a second, Todd Gitlin. Your response to the caller, who's clearly an admirer of Noam Chomsky, suggests that you and Noam Chomsky have had words.
GITLINWell, yeah, we have different analyses. I mean, that's another show.
GITLINI really -- I mean, I don't think we could bore a lot of people in the next five minutes with...
NNAMDIWell, we won't do that.
NNAMDIWe won't do that...
GITLINBut let me -- if I can insert a point as a footnote...
GITLIN...to the last comment. There is an interesting problem here that lives in that tension we were talking about a minute ago. Because in so far as people come to the rallies and -- God, all this political ramping is putting me in a sour mood, just as the eight years of George W. Bush put me in a sour mood. And I need a good giggle and then when it's over, I will pat myself on the back and thank God that I can still breathe. But, you know, sort of that's the way I give -- that's the way I engage the political process is I turn on the Daily Show and Colbert. And this would be, I think, deeply troubling and, in fact, tragic because the -- I hate to sound overly sober here.
GITLINBut we're in a grave political situation. The Tea Party people are not amusing. When somebody like Sharron Angle gets the Senate, the world according to Glenn Beck will be, you know, the daily proceedings in the U.S. Senate. And in this setting, I think it's important that people who actually want to get back to sanity understand that they can't just be an audience. Now, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert may or may not agree with that. I have no idea what their own views are. And I don't even know if they have consent views. But that's neither here or there. I think those who go to the rally actually have an opportunity and a responsibility to make of it something that is actually useful.
NNAMDIOn to Ryan in northwest Washington. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. The -- you can hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
RYANAll right. The point I wanted to make is I've been watching Jon Stewart for about 10 years and I've been wanting something like this rally to happen since then. But, frankly, I'm kind of disappointed with how it's going to turn out because, to me, Jon Stewart's message is about the state of political discourse in our country and the fact that communication media has basically turned what should be real discourse into absurdity. And he points out the absurdity and I thought that was a central message of Jon Stewart.
RYANBut he's kind of evolved to be just a liberal figurehead, in my opinion. I feel like the people going to this rally are going to be people just like me. Universally liberal, universally young. I want to believe in the narrative of, you know, Jon Stewart versus ignorance, rather than Jon Stewart on the same side of Rachel Maddow versus Glenn Beck and, you know, Bill O'Reilly. You know, I want the media message to be the emphasis and I'm just really scared that this is just going to be a liberal rally.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, Kal?
KALLAUGHERWell, he's got a really smart group of writers on board with him and I'm sure that they're going to really try to make sure that they're hitting at all sides. I think that many people would be surprised that there'll be a lot of satire at the expense of the people in the middle in this rally. You know, that, you know, Jon Stewart, they've mastered this form of television, you know, daily television satire. They've done the book. They've done very well there. They took their show on the road going to the various different political conventions, succeeded at that. Now, they're in D.C. in theater.
KALLAUGHERYou know, Jon Stewart is managed huge crowds at events he's been involved with. I think that people -- you know, he's raised -- he's basically come up to the challenge every single time and I think there's -- there will be a challenge, as pointed out by the caller, to be pigeon-holed. And they've really tried hard and I think fairly successfully proven that they can break out of any box that people put them in.
NNAMDIBut, Todd Gitlin, assuming that our caller is correct and the crowd that watches the show and the crowd that shows up here will essentially be a young liberal crowd, you seem to be making the point that it's one thing for a young liberal crowd to find amusement and ridicule in how our politicians and how our news media cover those politicians, another thing to get them motivated to do something. You seem to think that they should be motivated when they leave here. Not just to laugh, but to do something.
GITLINIndeed. And the fact that this is taking place three days before an important election...
NNAMDIIs no coincidence.
GITLINWell, I assume not. No. I mean, if they just sort of lift everybody with a giggle and said, okay, you know, see you Monday night on the comedy channel. You know, some people might be relieved. I think many would be let down. It let down -- you know, one more point in response to the last caller. I think it's absolutely right that the many people who are disappointed that Stewart has, you know, seemed more partisan than they thought he was initially or they worry that that's going to happen on Saturday. You know, any President -- actually, exactly the same things could be said about Barack Obama.
GITLINThere were people who went to his rallies who wanted to hear, you know, the fighting call to roll back the depredations of George W. Bush. And there were those who went to his speeches wishing to take it down a notch and recover bipartisanship. And Obama actually jointly and probably sincerely sort of juggled both themes. And, you know, people still debate, you know, who's the real Obama and people will debate who's the real Stewart and Colbert.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ryan. We move onto Luvell in Springfield, Va. Luvell, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUVELLHi. I'm a great fan of the show. My comment is that I don't understand why so many people who are against the rally feel that politics, in general, needs to be stodgy and stuffy and uninspiring. And I think it's great that Colbert and Jon Stewart got together. And people like me who would normally not come down and rally on any kind of topic no matter how much I agreed with it at home in my living room, I am inspired enough to go with my husband.
LUVELLWe're going to go down this weekend. And they're reaching people and bringing them out that would normally would not because you're presenting it in a way that people are attracted to through satire. And I think that, in itself, is commendable. And if one percent of all of these new people, like myself who come out to the rally, are inspired to then go do something, if 10 percent are inspired to then go on and vote in upcoming elections, you're reaching more people. And I think that ultimately is what will change our country for the better.
NNAMDIAnd of course, Stephen Colbert has reportedly said that that's the whole point of these rallies, to get the people who don't go out to either Tea Party or other Democratic party rallies, and they'll be the ones coming out here. And Todd Gitlin is hoping that they're not just coming out for laughs, they're coming out to do something.
NNAMDIBut we've got to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue this conversation on satire and politics and the Rally To Restore Sanity Or The March To Keep Fear Alive. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation about satire and politics as they relate to this weekend's rallies by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. We're talking with Todd Gitlin. He's a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election." He's a long-time activist.
NNAMDIWe're also talking with Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher. He is artist in-residence, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a political cartoonist for The Economist magazine. Kal, this week, Doonesbury celebrated the 40th anniversary of Garry Trudeau's first comic. Talk about his place in this country's satirical legacy.
KALLAUGHERWell, let's go back to when he -- you know, imagine what the comic pages were like before Doonesbury came around. It was a pretty sleepy place, you know, full of cat and dog strips and stuff for little kids. And he turned it from, you know, a forum of giggles to a, you know, a forum of discussion. And then, he -- of course, it was during the tumultuous days of the late '60s, you know, and we had Watergate and Vietnam following.
KALLAUGHERIt was, you know, a time where commentary was breaking out everywhere and it broke out on the comic pages. And eventually, of course, the strip was moved to the op. ed. pages for many newspapers. But he basically, you know, took an old format, a kind of a stodgy format, and brought a lot of life and brought democracy and discussion, you know, into the newspaper to whole new audiences.
KALLAUGHERAnd of course, he's still breaking ground now where, you know, his most recent series about disabled veterans, you know, nearly won him a Pulitzer. You know, he's just been doing great innovative stuff for a very long time.
NNAMDIIf Garry Trudeau is the master of newspaper comic strip satire, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert seem to dominate television satire. In your view, Todd Gitlin, what makes their formula to successful?
GITLINWell, they're extremely shrewd in what they observe are the moves of mask-wearing politicians and unhelpful and blind media people. I mean, I rely on them to blow the whistle on, for example, the belief by many mainstream journalists in 2004 that you had to give equal attention to the claims of John Kerry about what he had done in Vietnam and the claims of his detractors, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for so-called truth. The belief that you have to take seriously, for example, the panic of those who think that the biggest issue in the world today is the deficit, but showed absolutely no interest in that issue during the eight years when George Bush was running it up.
GITLINI mean, this begs for a certain kind of harsh laugh, but you have to be paying attention. I mean, they -- this is not just spitballs. These are not random observations about how funny-looking politicians are or how -- what funny words they use or their mannerisms or anything like that. These are -- these guys have done their homework and they're very astute. So -- and likewise, when Colbert channels Bill O'Reilly or -- Bill O'Reilly, he knows his moves.
GITLINHe knows O'Reilly's moves. And by the way, many people say that it's -- that, you know, people who claim -- many young people will tell a pollster that they get their news from "The Daily Show" or Colbert and many sort of serious-minded professorial types cluck cluck as if that could be taken at face value. But my own sense is that much of the show would be unintelligible if you weren't paying attention to the news. This is a high-level show.
NNAMDIYeah. They provide context more than anything else.
GITLINAnd -- yeah. I mean, you can't make jokes about, you know, Robert Gates, if people don't know that he's the secretary of defense. You can't make jokes about Afghanistan if people can't tell the difference between Afghanistan and Nicaragua. So these guys actually both presuppose a high level of knowledge. They treat their audience as adults and I think they actually are educators.
NNAMDIHere is -- oh, go ahead, Kal.
KALLAUGHERI was just going to add that in addition to Todd's strong observations, the other thing that makes these guys so good is that they're consistently on a high standard. That to knock the ball -- a homerun practically every day, so that you can tune into them on any given day of the week at any given month over many years, you're going to get quality work. That, to me, is one of the greatest awards that I've given.
NNAMDIHere is Mark in Herndon, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHello. The rally that's coming up, first of all, it's the most aptly named rally that I've ever heard of, The Rally To Restore Sanity. Clearly, that's a positive message. The negative message would be, you know, please let's fight the insane people out there these days. So it's a positive message, number one. But, you know, really the point of this rally is to get people out to say what makes sense in this country and what's made this country great and why are we where we are.
MARKA couple of examples with the Tea Party, who, by the way, is a very dangerous group of people, you know, pushing forward an agenda that is detrimental to society, abolishing the Department of Education, taking -- you know, not understanding the constitutional barrier between government and church, which by the way, they've benefited from. And I'm a big believer in that you can believe in what you want to believe, but understand a government shall make no law helping or hindering religion. And that benefits everybody.
MARKBut, you know, really at the end of the day, the goal of this rally, which is a bit satirical, but clearly a bit, you know, serious also, is to call people out as really being dangerous to the way of life that we have in this country that's built upon some basic foundations that suddenly people seem to have forgot, which is really the definition, in my opinion, of not being sane anymore.
NNAMDITodd Gitlin, we in media have spent a great deal of time examining and trying to understand the Tea Party, trying to understand if there was a single coherent message that was coming from the Tea Party and we have still come to the conclusion that it is inconclusive. What do you think about the kind of time we have spent and the quality of time we have spent examining the Tea Party?
GITLINWell, it's a fair subject and the Tea Party in this way I think is mysterious in the same way that all large social movements are mysterious. You know, there was kind of a gag among those of us who were involved in New Left politics in the 1960's. We would mock the sort of naïve reporter who would come out and say, but what do you people want?
GITLINWhich is, in one way, a fair question, but in another way they didn't get the point, which was that there was a cloud of passion and desire and criticism and to some degree befuddlement and overlapping interests and shifting interests, people evolving over time. There are overlaps. There are Tea Party people who really are obsessed with the deficit. There are Tea Party people who have some ugly propensities to violence.
GITLINThere's some Tea Party people who are collaborating with racists, if they're not racist themselves. There are Tea Party people who are basically, you know, the base of the Republican party. And no doubt there are others as well. There may be some pure Libertarians who identify with the Tea Party.
NNAMDIWell, what would you say to some of those people and conservatives who say, look, this -- what's happening in Washington D.C. this weekend is really just a rally for the Democratic party.
GITLINWell, I very much doubt it's going to be a rally for the -- I mean, I've never noticed Stewart and Colbert to be enthusiastic about the main workings of the Democratic party. I don't want to play the prophesy game because I really don't know to expect. I really don't. But the Democratic party, you know, may or may not be the beneficiary of people turning out to vote. But it's not directly the beneficiary. I don't think they'll have to claim Stewart and Colbert and major contributors under some federal fund provision.
NNAMDIMark, thank you very much for your call. Kal, I can't let you go without getting you to talk about your trip to Russia. You just got back. You were on a mission of quote/unquote "cartoon diplomacy," sponsored by the U.S. State Department. What kinds of questions did you get there about your work?
KALLAUGHERWell, you know, Kojo, I had a -- in St. Petersburg, an exhibition at, you know, a major Russian museum, alongside sort of historical cartoons of how, you know, political cartooning evolved in the United States and in Russia. And as part of it, you know, I would go out and give lots of talks in schools and things like that. And in one incident, you know, I show my cartoons and the slide presentation and then the open the floor for questions.
KALLAUGHERAnd the first question the hand put up was, did you get permission from the President to draw these terrible cartoons of them? (laugh) And, of course, that's where the discussion starts. And when I, at one place, said, well, you know, we have this constitution that kind of protects you from things like this, the room broke into spontaneous applause. And it makes you realize that, to me, you know, satire and political cartoons are kind of on the front line of freedom of expression.
KALLAUGHERAnd that you don't -- you know, you can judge the maturity of a democracy according to the amount of satire it can endure. And you can always see in -- in countries that are more and more repressive, the first thing to go is satire. So the fact we can have a rally like this in, you know, in the teeth of Washington and we can talk freely about this stuff and not worry that the police are going to march in, I think, is an amazing thing.
NNAMDIWhen you mention the police marching in, it's my understanding that quite a few people asked you why you're not in jail.
KALLAUGHERYeah. And, you know, I was in the Middle East earlier this year and they wanted to know why I have, you know, both operating hands still attached to my body. (laugh) No. You know, this is the thing, you know. The discussion that you have is not too dissimilar to what we're talking about for this event this weekend, is that by showcasing, you know, my criticism of our own government using humor, using caricature, using ridicule, but still to the point of trying to get a discussion going.
KALLAUGHERWhen other people see this in countries where this is not as warmly welcomed, they long for it. They think it's amazing. And, you know, it's something that they aspire for. They may not have it tomorrow, but you're planting a seed in people's minds about what you want to aspire to.
KALLAUGHERI have a feeling, as satirists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, when they throw out all their various different jokes and points that they're interweaving with the humor, is that they're planting seeds in people's minds about events and things and ways to look at things. And if people don't come away and necessarily use this as a call to action and vote on Tuesday, let's say, I think ,in time, all of this stuff acts as a benefit to the whole society because it just gets people engaged in thinking about what's important.
NNAMDITodd Gitland, for those critics of the rally who complain that Stewart and Colbert are taking themselves too seriously and that once they've crossed over into being political organizers in the eyes of the public, if not their own, their satire will suffer. Do you agree? I find it significant that earlier in the broadcast you mentioned their writers, Todd Gitland.
GITLINWell, sure. I mean, I don't know -- it's hard to know who the -- I mean, they are the channels in a -- you know, obviously they're the inspirations for their characters, but they'll also like old performers, you know, characters with writers. So I group them all together. I have -- you know, I pay homage to all of them together. You know, when Colbert made a funny at the presidency, you remember?
GITLINHe ran -- he announced in some prime -- I think it's South Carolina.
NNAMDIHe's from South Carolina, yes.
GITLINYeah. I think that was a huge mistake, actually. It was a false move and I was glad he lost. I'm glad he bowed out early because that would have been -- that was taking himself vastly too seriously. And I don't know what the point was. I think, well, we don't know how seriously they're going to take themselves. But again, I think the caller who used the phrase stepping up was right on the money.
GITLINThese guys recognize a need that, you know, this is a society in which an ignoramus and a dangerous demagogue like Glenn Beck has a following. They are an antidote and they understand that they're an antidote. I think it's -- hallelujah that they take themselves seriously enough to recognize that the country is in one of its fevers and that the fever needs medicine and they are the medicine.
NNAMDIAnd I'll close with this e-mail that we got from someone who says, "I'm going to the rally this Saturday with my 13-year-old daughter. I feel strongly that we must bring civility back. In a climate where we have seen swastikas, hysterics at town meetings and downright hatred for the president, it's important for people to speak up. People know that I consider myself an Independent, but no one can ignore the hostile climate in the country.
NNAMDIBy the way, as a person who has voted in every election in which I have been eligible to vote, I will also bring my children with me to vote this Tuesday and I take every opportunity to discuss politics with them. This is not just a rally. It's a call to arms to bring civility and moderation back to the discussion." I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Todd Gitland, thank you for joining us.
GITLINHallelujah for that sentiment.
NNAMDITodd is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and a long-time activist. Kal, thank you for joining us.
KALLAUGHERIt's good to be with you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIKevin or "Kal" Kallaugher is artist in-residence, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and political cartoonist for The Economist magazine. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
"Insurrections" is a collection of short stories that all take place in Cross River, a fictional Maryland town not far from Washington, D.C.
One cost-saving strategy would shut down low-performing Metro stations during off-peak hours.
Kojo explores Michelin’s newly starred restaurants and finds out how these fine eateries have changed “Steakhouse D.C.”