Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

‘What the mainstream media can learn from Jon Stewart’

The key recommendations? Be bold and cut through the fog of spin.

From the American Journalism Review article:

Whether lampooning President Bush’s disastrous Iraq policies or mocking “real” reporters for their credulity, Stewart and his team often seem to steer closer to the truth than traditional journalists. The “Daily Show” satirizes spin, punctures pretense and belittles bombast. When a video clip reveals a politician’s backpedaling, verbal contortions or mindless prattle, Stewart can state the obvious–ridiculing such blather as it deserves to be ridiculed–or remain silent but speak volumes merely by arching an eyebrow.

Stewart and his fake correspondents are freed from the media’s preoccupation with balance, the fixation with fairness. They have no obligation to deliver the day’s most important news, if that news is too depressing, too complicated or too boring. Their sole allegiance is to comedy.

Or, as “The Daily’s Show’s” Web site puts it: “One anchor, five correspondents, zero credibility. If you’re tired of the stodginess of the evening newscasts, if you can’t bear to sit through the spinmeisters and shills on the 24-hour cable news networks, don’t miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a nightly half-hour series unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.”

That’s funny. And obvious. But does that simple, facetious statement capture a larger truth–one that may contain some lessons for newspapers and networks struggling to hold on to fleeing readers, viewers and advertisers in a tumultuous era of transition for old media?

Has our slavish devotion to journalism fundamentals–particularly our obsession with “objectivity”–so restricted news organizations that a comedian can tell the public what’s going on more effectively than a reporter? Has Stewart, whose mission is to be funny, sliced through the daily obfuscation more effectively than his media counterparts, whose mission is to inform? …

Venise Wagner, associate chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, argues with her students over whether “The Daily Show” is real journalism. They think it is; she tells them it isn’t, explaining that journalism involves not just conveying information but also following a set of standards that includes verification, accuracy and balance.

But she says “The Daily Show” does manage to make information relevant in a way that traditional news organizations often do not, and freedom from “balance” shapes its success. “‘The Daily Show’ doesn’t have to worry about balance. They don’t have to worry about accuracy, even. They can just sort of get at the essence of something, so it gives them much more latitude to play around with the information, to make it more engaging,” Wagner says. “Straight news sometimes places itself in a box where it doesn’t allow itself–it doesn’t give itself permission to question as much as it probably should question.” Instead, the exercise becomes one of: “I’m just going to take the news down and give it to you straight.”

But what exactly is straight news, and what is balance? Is balance a process of giving equal weight to both sides, or of giving more weight to the side with more evidence? Does accuracy mean spelling everybody’s name right and quoting them correctly, or does it also mean slicing to the heart of an issue? “Nowhere is the comedy show balanced,” says Wagner, “but it allows them more balance in showing what is really going on.”

As journalists, by contrast, “We’ve presented a balanced picture to the public. But is it accurate? Is it authentic?” She cites coverage of the global warming debate, which, until recently, often was presented as an equal argument between scientists who said global warming was occurring and scientists who denied it. “That reality was not authentic. There were very few scientists who refuted the body of evidence” supporting global warming, Wagner says, yet the coverage did not always reflect that.

Back in September 2005, the Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted an event called Spin and the Public Interest (there’s an archived webcast available).

In the q-and-a, I asked whether watching a satirical show should be a part of daily newswatching, given that mainstream news seems to be losing its battle to cut through the bullshit.

Of the┬ápanelists — Theresa Tedesco of the Financial Post, Robert Hurst of CTV News, Ira Basen of CBC and Peter Donolo of The Strategic Counsel — only Donolo would address the question.

He dissed The Daily Show as preaching to the converted and said, “I find it to be onanistic.”

Methinks Mr. Donolo was too quick in his criticism, but at the same time, let’s not sell the mainstream media short (while at the same time, not ignoring some of its problems). This Hour Has 22 Minutes didn’t uncover the Shawnigate story; Andrew McIntosh did at the National Post. The Rick Mercer Report didn’t uncover allegations of abuse of Afghan detainees who had been turned over by Canadians, Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail did.

When good work does get done, it doesn’t get recognized as such.

In fact, good work can simply ramp up attacks by partisans.

However, caving in to fear of criticism exacerbates exactly the type of problems the above article addresses.

Oh well. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be fun. :)

Mon, July 2 2007 » Main Page, Media