Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Who You Gonna Trust?

It's as much a reflection of the state of journalism -- and the media -- as it is on the quality of the show itself, that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is tied with the "big names" of journalism as the most admired journalist.

I have to admit that while I rarely watch TV news anymore, I also rarely miss The Daily Show (and now that I have TiVo, I can watch it whenever, so I never have to miss it). My husband and I were recently discussing the fall of journalism as a force in our lives. We are old enough to remember the glory days of journalism and the importance of the nightly news. We agreed that it was the introduction of the entertainment aspect into the newsroom that has mostly contributed to the decline in the value of the news. And 24 hour cable news? Forget about it.

If you're going to make the news more about entertainment that news, then The Daily Show gets my vote hands down as the best way to combine news and entertainment. Stewart's take on the news of the day is informative and entertaining. Much of the network and cable news rendition of the news is repetitive and stunningly silly. And then there's the propaganda aspect to the reporting of the "news," which diminishes its integrity. The end result is it's all worthless when it's difficult to discern what's real and what's not. See, The Real Fake News.

The NYTimes notes the phenomenon in Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?:

When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Mr. Stewart, the fake news anchor, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN. And a study this year from the center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that “ ‘The Daily Show’ is clearly impacting American dialogue” and “getting people to think critically about the public square.”

While the show scrambled in its early years to book high-profile politicians, it has since become what Newsweek calls “the coolest pit stop on television,” with presidential candidates, former presidents, world leaders and administration officials signing on as guests. One of the program’s signature techniques — using video montages to show politicians contradicting themselves — has been widely imitated by “real” news shows, while Mr. Stewart’s interviews with serious authors like Thomas Ricks, George Packer, Seymour Hersh, Michael Beschloss and Reza Aslan have helped them and their books win a far wider audience than they otherwise might have had.

Most important, at a time when Fox, MSNBC and CNN routinely mix news and entertainment, larding their 24-hour schedules with bloviation fests and marathon coverage of sexual predators and dead celebrities, it’s been “The Daily Show” that has tenaciously tracked big, “super depressing” issues like the cherry-picking of prewar intelligence, the politicization of the Department of Justice and the efforts of the Bush White House to augment its executive power.

For that matter, the Comedy Central program — which is not above using silly sight gags and sophomoric sex jokes to get a laugh — has earned a devoted following that regards the broadcast as both the smartest, funniest show on television and a provocative and substantive source of news. “The Daily Show” resonates not only because it is wickedly funny but also because its keen sense of the absurd is perfectly attuned to an era in which cognitive dissonance has become a national epidemic. Indeed, Mr. Stewart’s frequent exclamation “Are you insane?!” seems a fitting refrain for a post-M*A*S*H, post-“Catch-22” reality, where the surreal and outrageous have become commonplace — an era kicked off by the wacko 2000 election standoff in Florida, rocked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and haunted by the fallout of a costly war waged on the premise of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of alternative sources of news available, the Pew Study finds:

Since the early 1990s, the proportion of Americans saying they read a newspaper on a typical day has declined by about 40%; the proportion that regularly watches nightly network news has fallen by half.

Of course, as the Times pieces notes, the end result of the presentation of the news as entertainment by television is the dumbing down of America. See, One-in-three Americans struggle badly with current events. Think Progress sums up the findings:
A new Pew Survey on News Consumption released yesterday reveals that viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are more knowledgeable about current events than those who watch Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs, Larry King, and the “average consumers of NBC, ABC, Fox News, CNN, C-SPAN and daily newspapers.” Thirty percent of Daily Show and 34 percent of Colbert viewers correctly identified Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives, compared to the national average of just 18 percent.
I realize that times are difficult in the journalism and media industry, but the solution chosen by the industry obviously isn't the way to go. A few years ago Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post wrote about the sad state of the news, noting that its problems don't stem so much from the internet or Comedy Central, but from journalists no longer doing what they were supposed to do -- call bullshit. Sounds Like Gobbledygook to Me.

Echoing his sentiments, I said then: The news media is clearly in flux. Surely there needs to be adjustments to accommodate new media outlets, such as the internet. However, as Froomkin says so well, the real problem is that the press has lost it's way. It has forgotten it's mission -- the Fourth Estate's role in society is to be the "keeper of the watch" for its citizens.

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