Colbert-Stewart rally: Bigger than a tea party?

People who can't make it to Washington for the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert 'Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear' Oct. 30 are holding 'meet-ups.' By one measure, the rally might spawn more local events than the tea party movement has.

By , Staff writer

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    Stephen Colbert (l.) and Jon Stewart (r.) are joined by Oprah Winfrey in announcing that they will combine the 'Rally to Restory Sanity' and the 'March to Keep Fear Alive' Oct. 30 in Washington.
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As the clock counts down to the Oct. 30 "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in Washington, the number of sister events in support of the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert extravaganza is exploding.

You can actually go to the event's websites and watch the number speed upwards in real time. As of this writing, the tally of “meet-ups” – which includes everything from a few buddies at a sports bar to the grand second- and third-city events planned for Chicago and Los Angeles, complete with pricey jumbotron screens and city permits – is 801 cities in 67 countries.

"This is growing faster than any online meet-up we’ve seen,” says Andres Glusman, vice president of strategy and community for Meetup.com, the firm behind the little widget on the events' sites. He spoke from a Manhattan street corner where he had just emerged from a meeting with the Colbert Report team.

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His company, founded in 2002, has powered the online grassroots organizing behind the 2004 Howard Dean presidential bid and the tea party movement. He says he would not be surprised to see the Colbert/Stewart rally surpass the numbers put up by the tea party by the Nov. 2 election. Tea party groups currently have about 2,500 events scheduled on the website.

The next question, of course, is what this will all mean come election day.

Will it inspire voters? Will it help Democrats?

Some suggest the rally could boost voter turnout. Ten percent of online conversations around the Comedy Central rallies on the top 400 forums and blogs mention voting, while 5 percent talk about the midterm elections, according to Networked Insights, a firm that analyzes web topics.

“This is a growing movement,” says CEO Dan Neely, who adds that the largest demographic participating in the conversations is people aged 35 to 54.

If true, the rallies could help Democrats, some say. “The speculation is that it will likely be heavily slanted in favor of the political left,” says Mr. Kownacki.

This view, despite Stewart’s protestations that the event is merely to "restore sanity," is bolstered by the recent imprimatur bestowed on the event by one of the president’s biggest celebrity fans, Oprah Winfrey. (Does this support augur a Jon Stewart jump to Oprah’s own network when it debuts next year? Stay tuned).

All this bottoms-up activity combined with the top-down support from Viacom, the cable channel’s corporate parent, which is carrying the full event live, makes this an unprecedented intermixing of politics, entertainment, and big corporate interests, says Washington-based digital strategist Brendan Kownacki.

Such a tacit corporate media endorsement is an important cultural turning point, he says. Traditional firewalls that divided political news and the entertainment world are falling as hybrid events like this one cross the line between news and what is entertainment.

“No such broadcast took place for the similarly controversial Glenn Beck rally, even by Fox,” says Kownacki.

Given the grassroots enthusiasm, it is no surprise that President Obama will appear on Stewart’s “Daily Show” Oct. 27, while it is taping in the nation’s capital the week prior to the rally. Comedy Central will carry the entire event live, as well as stream it on the Web

In search of a clear message

The polarization of the mass media into partisan camps has been underway for at least the past decade, says George Munoz, co-author of "Renewing the American Dream," who points out that ratings have driven this extremism.

CNN, which used to stand for a moderate middle ground, has been one of the biggest losers,” he points out, noting that the network's ratings slump is due largely to its lack of strong on-air political personalities.

That may be true, but clarity of political message may be the one thing that is lost in the event, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “When the civil rights marchers went to D.C. with King and sang spirituals and held signs asking for civil rights now, everyone knew exactly what they wanted.”

But a big, feel-good comedy event, even if it is full of great entertainment, will be much more ambiguous at the ballot box. Everyone in attendance may agree on the need to restore sanity, “but that doesn’t necessarily translate in the voting booth,“ he says.

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