While pundits and rally-goers expressed disapproval at NPR and other media outlets for their decision to bar reporters from attending Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, it was The Huffington Post whose response to Saturday’s gathering on the Washington Mall was the most egregious. The popular left-leaning website’s enthusiastic coverage of and support for the rally crossed the vital boundary that must exist between the media and the news they cover. If this is the future of journalism, then Stewart’s impassioned plea for a more competent, reasonable national media is futile.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning an estimated 10,000 rally-goers boarded Huffpo-sponsored “sanity buses” at Citi Field in Queens, N.Y., and began the journey to D.C. where they would take their places among the humor-seeking masses on the Washington Mall. This offer worked out great for the riders — who traveled free of charge — but left Huffpo in the precarious journalistic position of being an explicit supporter of an event it was theoretically charged with objectively covering. Obviously, Huffpo does not purport itself to be politically neutral, and that is undoubtedly a part of its appeal. But when a media outlet becomes an organizing appendage of a politically-charged event, that outlet loses the authority to deliver legitimate reporting and commentary on that event. While the website featured an enormous body of content — ranging from live blogs to reader photos to op-eds — this content was tainted by the outlet’s inappropriate role in the rally itself.
In addition, the website’s coverage of the event was excessive to the extreme. Yes, the rally was important — more than 200,000 people rallying for civility speaks volumes to the tenor of our current political discourse. But for Huffpo to devote the entire upper fold of its website to the rally for the entire weekend says more about the news outlet itself than it does the significance of the rally. Their coverage was more promotion than news delivery, and was eerily similar to Fox News’ “coverage” of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in August — coverage that both Stewart and Huffpo criticized at the time.
Whatever one’s opinion on the ideological underpinnings of Stewart’s rally, his assertion that the polarized, overblown nature of our current media has made solving America’s problems more difficult rings true. Remedying this means not only taking the rhetoric down a notch and bringing more reasonable opinions into the discourse, but also respecting the line between the reporters and the reported that has become obscured. The media must be just what its name suggests — a medium through which the public learns about the news — and not become entangled with the news itself.
In the new media age, where so-called journalists are aplenty but legitimacy is scarce, this distinction between media outlets and the events they cover is even more important. The Huffington Post, for better or worse, has the popularity and the resources to influence the future of the media. For that future to be bright, and for that media to heed the words of Jon Stewart, embarrassments like Huffpo’s coverage of the Rally to Restore Sanity must become a thing of the past.
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