Tonight I redeemed the greatest Christmas present from my son, Jake: tickets to see The Daily Show taping with him. It was fun and funny. But even better, it inspired me as a journalist.
I left the studio determined to teach a course in journalism via jokes. (I’d call it Truth Through Humor, but that sounds like an Orwellian sitcom [starring John Goodman as Big Brother]).
Jon Stewart regularly demurs when we journalists try to drag him into our sad fraternity. Well, bullshit. His interview tonight with Republican Sen. Jim DeMint was journalism at its best.
Stewart has a worldview. He’s in favor of civil discourse. He’s in favor of America. He’s in favor of government when it adds value and security to citizens’ lives. He does his homework. He knows his facts. He asks hard questions and won’t accept easy answers. He pressed DeMint — civilly and smartly and comically and again and again — on the senator’s divisive rhetoric in the book he was there to plug. He pressed the studio audience to be civil to DeMint. He left trying to find common ground for a discussion about better government and a better nation.
The interview went on 20 minutes or maybe even 30 minutes to fill a seven-minute slot. Stewart wasn’t filling time; he was asking questions. The remainder, Stewart said, will end up on the net (I’ll link when it’s up) and I urge you — or at least my journalism students — to watch it as an object lesson in interview that try to get somewhere (most don’t).
There’s a larger lesson here about jokes as journalism. So next, I urge you to listen to Ethan Zuckerman’s lecture on cute cats and revolution on the wonderful CBC series Ideas. Ethan talks about humor as a means to get around censorship. I listened to his talk a day after hearing Richard Gingras, now head of Google News, talking at a symposium on entrepreneurial journalism organized by Dan Gillmor at Arizona State about how difficult it is for algorithms to recognize humor.
I hope algorithms never understand humor. If algorithms succeed, then censors and tyrants will use them to find it and quash humor. If algorithms succeed at creating jokes, then Hollywood will hire geeks to build virtual Stewarts, Sterns, and Lettermen: plastic action figures. Then humor will lose its humanity and credibility. No, humor is hard. May it ever stay so.
At the end of a meeting about trying to scale fact-checking that we held with Craig Newmark at CUNY, we decided that as a followup, we should hold an event on facts as entertainment: fact-checking as a game and truth a la Stewart at amusement. When did truth become boring and dutiful and dull in journalists’ hands? In Stewart’s hands, comedy is truth, truth is journalism, ergo comedy can be journalism. His is.
Want a class in that? If only it could be taught by Prof. Stewart.