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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.

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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).

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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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