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Will the Beck and Colbert-Stewart rallies rock the vote?

From Glenn Beck to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, talk show hosts are encouraging their fans to get involved. But will they spark longer-term political activism?

By Staff writer / October 22, 2010

Glenn Beck waves to the crowd at the start of the 'Restoring Honor' rally, in Washington, on Aug. 28, 2010.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File


Los Angeles

At a time when many voters are rebelling against traditional political-party labels, it is no coincidence, say media and political experts, that the most talked-about rallies in Washington during this election season are the work of three talk show hosts.

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First, there was the Aug. 28 rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, fronted by Fox's Glenn Beck. Coming up on Oct. 30 will be the other, a double-header bash before the Nov. 2 election: Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are putting on the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall.

More and more, the average voter views the mainstream political system as “broken,” says Geoffrey Baym, author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.” Americans across the ideological spectrum are turning to what they consider “outsider voices to articulate their concerns.” Increasingly, those contrarians are on television and radio talk shows, he adds.

The role of TV talk shows in today's elections cannot be overestimated, says former Republican speechwriter Curt Smith, who is now a senior lecturer at the University of Rochester in New York. “The TV talk show, for better or worse, has become the picture window through which Americans view elections,” he says. It “surveys and critiques, celebrates and condemns, depending on the ideology of the show.”

On the liberal end of the talk show spectrum, Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart play serious issues for laughs, he notes. Meanwhile, MSNBC - with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow - goes more for straight talk.

Yet the combined audiences of the programs with a liberal tilt “are nothing compared to the audience numbers for the conservative-leaning ones, in particular Fox News,” Mr. Smith says. The consensus about these shows has been that they largely preach to the choir, making few converts, he says. But that is changing with their continued growth, especially at Fox, he adds.

On the conservative side of the equation, he says, “TV and radio talk shows are no longer a supplement for the Republican Party; they have become a substitute for the Republican Party.”