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.
Got to see The Daily Show taping tonight (more on that in a minute) and in the pre-show conversation with Jon Stewart, an audience member said he was sent by The Internet to ask about SOPA. Stewart professed (not feigned, I think) ignorance, asking whether that was net neutrality, and excusing himself, what with their “heads being up their asses” in the election and all. But he said he’d do his homework and he looked at writer Steve Bodow when he said that. Let’s hope he comes out loud.
Confidential to Mr. Stewart: The problem here is that [cough] your industry, entertainment, is trying to give power the power to blacklist and turn off sites if they’re so much as accused of “pirating” (their word, not ours) content. This changes the fundamental architecture of the net, giving *government* the power and means to kill sites for this and then other reasons. That threatens to destroy this, our greatest tool of publicness (book plug). So please, sir we need your force of virtue to beat down this, another evil. On behalf of The Internet, thank you.
I had many reactions to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity — all good. These thoughts were stored up like nuts in a squirrel’s cheeks during the rally as AT&T couldn’t cope with so much sanity, and so I tweeted them in a flurry afterwards and will expand on them here.
Stewart’s close was pitch-perfect, presenting optimism, perspective, honesty, and humor in exact proportion.
He brilliantly separated himself from media, politics, and government, setting him closer to us, the people. In other circumstances, that might sound like a populist’s positioning: Stewart as Evita (don’t laugh for me, New Jersey). But that’s why the apolitical nature of the event matters: He wasn’t selling an agenda or buying power. He was leading and inspiring. He was recognizing and supporting the best in us.
Stewart was raising a standard for how our alleged leaders should respect us so we could respect them in return. “Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false,” he said. Stewart was doing nothing less than resetting the relationship of the powerful to the public. He was re-empowering us. His speech and his event were profoundly democratic. Not Democratic or Democrat—democratic.
Media took most of his barbs and for good reason. I must confess that I came away feeling a bit ashamed to be a member of the media and journalism tribe (even as I played hooky from the Online News Association’s annual and newly exuberant confab uptown). Stewart and Colbert rightfully castigated us. Oh, yes, they aimed mostly at cable news. “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder,” Stewart said.
But the rest of us in the news business are not blameless. We, too, monetize fright. We are evil coaches on grade school playgrounds, making sides and then pitting them against each other. When we in the press included TV and cable news people in our journalistic club and rejected bloggers and citizens, we legitimized them. When we don’t repudiate their ways, we excuse them. Shame on all of us.
The coverage of the rally I’ve seen so far tends toward the dismissive, as does its play on the home pages of The New York Times and Washington Post. “Nonpartisan bits, musical entertainment and gentle ribbing of the purported enemies of incivility,” is the Post’s view of it. Cute. Unimportant. A trifle. Pay no heed to its criticism of us; it’s just a joke, after all. Ex-Postie Howie Kurtz was surprised at the size of the event. He underestimated. I didn’t. He called it “shtick” and “weak” at that. His was an entertainment review. That’s how The Times saw it, as “part circus, part satire, part holiday parade.” You know how those kids love a parade with clowns, yet.
Well, judged as entertainment, Kurtz isn’t entirely wrong. Except it wasn’t entertainment. The event used entertainment to be something else, to make a different point. At least The Times’ wunderkind, Brian Stelter, got a blogging chance to call it what it was: media criticism. But sadly, the media don’t even realize they were being criticized, not really.
There was so much about the day that was so encouraging.
It was indeed wonderful and hopeful to hear Cat Stevens/Yusef/Joseph/Joe sing Peace Train. On Twitter, @msbellows said its humor advanced the cause of Muslim moderation 20 years.
It was equally wonderful to hear Stewart thank the un-tolled masses for massing. “Sanity,” he said, “will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.” On Twitter, I observed that these people came not for a show but for (a) reason. (Stelter, by the way, agreed.)
I was most heartened — overjoyed, really — by the fact that I shared this day with so many people my own age and just as many my son’s age. I was lucky that he happened to have taken the weekend away from college and could come with me, along with a high-school friend of his. I was crammed in in front of them. To my left were more young people. To my right and ahead were people my age who understood what a big deal it was for Cat Stevens/Yusef/Joseph/Joe to return to a musical stage — and share it was Ozzy friggin’ Osborne (which made it worth the frustration of hearing Peace Train interrupted after all these years).
My son’s friend, Ben, said he’d never been to a rally before. Emily Bell tweeted that she used the opportunity to introduce her newly arrived sons to the idea of rallies and had some trouble explaining to her 6-year-old the reason for them.
No, this wasn’t their Woodstock 2.0. It was just a rally. In my youth, in our fabled ’60s, we had them all the time because we had cause and because we believed we could — must — change government and society. That was change we could believe in. Now Stewart has given us reason again to come together, to set new standards, to expect real change, to celebrate democracy (not government), to communicate (around media) — in short, and in every sense of the word, to rally.
: Oh, and I almost forgot: I was also delighted to see NPR and other haughty temples of journalism get shit from Stephen Colbert for forbidding their employees unless assigned from attending the rally. As son Jake said afterwards, it was an insult to the people at that rally. What, do we have cooties on us? Damn it, every one of the journalists on those staffs could have learned a great deal today. But they weren’t allowed to. Because that’s not officially journalistic. Well, once again, Jon Stewart proved to be closer to the public than the journalists charged with serving them. That’s why we trust him and not you, media people. He’s not afraid to get a little of us on him.
: The morning after: The Rally to Restore Sanity was about media, but media didn’t hear. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, and, of course, Fox News all played it down on their home pages; the Guardian and Die Zeit Online played it bigger.
Oy. I should be writing a book right now and not responding to the zillionth linkless attack on the ills of the blogosphere, this time from NPR’s outgoing ombuds, Alicia Shepard, who blames the “dark side” and “lousy job” of the blogosphere for NPR’s own admittedly unclear (not to mention wrong-headed, in my view) memo forbidding staff from so much as stepping near the Jon Stewart Restoring Sanity rally. She does so without linking to a single blog … except mine. Sorry, blogosphere, I guess I’ve single-handedly lowered your standards.
Shepard acknowledges that management’s memo failed to say that NPR would cover the rally and then she gets all high and haughty that people wondered whether it would. That fails a pretty basic test of journalism: does the story answer the obvious questions? And if it doesn’t, who’s to blame for confusion, pray tell?
She includes in her litany of blog dastardliness my argument that NPR is forbidding journalistic curiosity. She doesn’t attribute or link to that opinion, nor to any of the other probably equally out-of-context smears she alleges. In our low standards of the blogosphere, we think that’s a sin for it robs the reader of the chance to judge for herself.
Shepard doesn’t really address the many other quite legitimate questions NPR’s Papal bull also raises in the fetid mind of the blogosphere. The fact that NPR felt obliged to put Stewart’s rally off limits to its staff but didn’t feel it necessary to issue such an order for Glenn Beck’s rally does obviously raise the presumption that NPR staffers would be interested in the former and not the later — ergo, NPR staffers are liberally inclined. (I have no problem with that, only that it is masked under NPR’s Shroud of Turin Objectivity.) Shepard merely repeats and accepts the company line without real discussion of it. She doesn’t deal with the journalistic questions I raised, only repeats the cant of freshman journalism seminars about objectivity:
But at the end of the day, they have to be professional – and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.
If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots. For that is taking sides. Except it’s done in private. So it doesn’t create perceptions. That, then, is what this entire episode is really about: perceptions, the PR in NPR.
“She sees her job as explaining NPR to listeners, and listeners to NPR,” says Shepard’s network bio. I’d say she does the former and not the latter. Shepard’s term is about to end (note my restraint, please, in making further comment on that event). NPR: I’ll repeat: Love ya. But please, please this time give the public a representative who sees it as her job to represent the public, not management and the Priesthood of The Way It Has Always Been Done, Amen.
: UPDATE: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller’s response to the kerfuffle is more intelligent and nuanced than Shepard’s. But it still comes down to the same bottom line: appearances.
We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation. While the credibility and trust that attaches to the NPR brand depends principally on the quality of our news reporting, it can be easily undermined if our public conduct is at odds with the standards we seek to uphold as a news organization.