Why aren't real news people more like Jon Stewart?
The Colbert Report debuted in 2005. That means that The Daily Show had been earning rave reviews since well before that for its biting satirical take on the news that in some cases seemed better than the real news shows. Even before The Colbert Report, Stewart made a famous appearance on Crossfire a year earlier where he so called out the culture of news of the day it led to Crossfire's cancellation. (And his show put out America: The Book the same year.) But news organizations have changed so little since then that TV news is arguably poorer for the loss of Crossfire as a place where liberal and conservative views would be forced to confront each other (and made stronger for it) rather than stay within their shelters of Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh. (I'd like to see some news network start a PTI-style show for news and politics.) As early as 2002, Stewart was rumored to be replacing David Letterman.
We've had Stewart helming The Daily Show for a decade now, and earning rave reviews the whole time, and a recurring theme of his tenure has been calling out and making fun of the mainstream media as much if not more often than politicians. (The media was a particular target of America: The Book.) And for being, as Stewart is wont to remind people, a "fake news show", its popularity still would seem to suggest it's something today's youth actually want in their news. So why hasn't anyone taken up the challenge? Why is journalism still as bankrupt as it ever has been in this decade? Why hasn't anyone become the "real" Jon Stewart, or at least taken up his grievances?
This came into focus for me while watching Stewart's interview with Jim Cramer last night. The interview went on so long that the unedited version had to be posted on The Daily Show's web site, but really, the interview could be condensed into one or two sentences. Stewart called out Cramer and CNBC for not digging down deep in its interviews with CEOs and challenging them to bring the goods, instead of "trusting" them and then "regretting" trusting them so much later. More broadly, Stewart both cast doubt on the ethical standards of people like Cramer who have had experience with the shadier side of Wall Street and suggested that experience could be used to actually enlighten viewers, and wondered if CNBC's target audience was ordinary Americans looking to invest their 401k's or Wall Street insiders.
This isn't new stuff with Stewart. Regularly he will show pieces of a real news network's softball interview with a newsmaker and ridicule it, or criticise the practices of the mainstream media in a similar fashion. But to flip it around, if Cramer were to come on an Anderson Cooper or someone else in the mainstream media, he wouldn't be so heavily pushed - even if he weren't a member of it. It says a lot that Stewart is doing a lot of the asking of truly penetrating questions and actual debate of guests in the media today.
Why do we have to tune in at 11 PM on the comedy channel to watch a comedian do it for only thirty minutes? Doesn't Stewart's popularity suggest there's a real market for real, hard-hitting journalism, not pandering and demagoguery?
Last summer after reading True Enough, I decided I would start reading the two major media watchdog sites on both sides of the political spectrum, Media Matters for America on the left and Newsbusters on the right. I eventually stopped - I got the impression that Newsbusters was more obsessive about rooting out bias and had a larger density of posts, and for the first time I started semi-seriously considering the conservative claim of liberal media bias - but the impression I got from the sites dedicated to claiming the media was biased to the right or to the left wasn't that it was biased to either side. It was just incompetent.
That led me to claim that what was really needed was for the media to fight back against claims of bias from both sides and lay out why they're right after all. But part of the reason the media isn't fond of doing that is because it's all too fond of playing up the extreme differences between left and right. It's as much a willing participant as anything in the red-blue divide with shows from the likes of Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, and Sean Hannity. (Bill O'Reilly and Rachael Maddow might deserve at least a little more respect from their respective other sides.) And there may also be the factor that the media really is falling down on the job. Certainly it's not just left and right complaining about it, or even minority groups like backers of third parties. Anyone you talk to will likely bemoan the loss of real journalism, of investigative journalism, of substantive journalism, of coverage of events that really matter rather than, say, Jennifer Aniston, of any virtue of journalism that doesn't follow the almighty dollar.
The people running the news networks will likely say that sort of thing doesn't sell. I think the popularity of Stewart says otherwise and that, given an alternative to the sort of hollow, flashy, scratching-the-surface, substanceless journalism they're getting now, people will flock to it in a heartbeat. Certainly that's the sort of thing my mom likes best about Stewart; I suspect it's what America will find they like as well. (Although presentation matters; the fact it may matter more than content is how we got into this mess. Once, I was inspired by anti-American-media comments to check out BBC America's "World News America" and found it boring as hell. And not entirely free from schmaltzy human interest stories to boot.)
Newspapers aren't dying because they can't make money on the Internet, except in the sense they don't know how to capitalize on the Internet (and that they've been losing classified revenue to Craigslist). They may even be best off silencing their presses - besides the cost of the press itself, there's distribution and middleman fees to consider - as the print versions have really become loss leaders more than anything else. They're dying because they're so incompetent that two groups that have never been such bitter enemies nonetheless both hate their guts, and because they're getting new competition and scrutiny from blogs - and because they believe their "can't make money on the Internet" excuse for their struggles, they aren't realizing the real reasons and adapting and evolving to them. (I wrote more on this here.) Rather than getting better newspapers, we might end up with no newspapers at all. I mean, after decades of conservative accusations of media bias, how is it that the mainstream media is STILL doing stuff like this? Or this or this?
I hear that a major reason we need to save newspapers is because of all the "financial resources" they have to do real broad-scale reporting. If newspapers want to keep those "financial resources" they need to come up with new and better reasons for people to patronize them. And as for television news, they're well overdue to take a long, hard look at themselves and figure out if they're really doing the best they can. Stewart may be telling them - in word and deed - that they aren't.