Comedy and Journalism

I went to Washington, DC’s famous Mall on Saturday, October 30, to witness the reaction of participants to the call by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to their rally to “Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive.”  Most press coverage stated that “tens of thousands” attended the event.  The amount of people attending was, undoubtedly, much larger.  London’s The Guardian newspaper estimated attendance at around 250,000.  I think that amount comes closer to reality.  Despite the lack of support for the Iraq war during President George W. Bush’s last years in office, there never was a protest against the war that ever came close to bringing so many people to Washington.  Some go further and say that as many as 500,000 attended the Stewart-Colbert’s event.

For those who are not familiar with Stewart or Colbert, we can call them the fathers of “fake” news shows that are designed from a comedic point of view.  They both work on the basic cable channel Comedy Central.  Their audience levels are quite high, as are those of another comedian called Bill Maher, whose show is broadcast on pay-cable’s HBO.

In the United States, all three are what are known as liberals or sympathizers with the Democratic Party.  In general, the target of their attacks and ironic comments is the Republican Party (and more recently, the new Tea Party movement, although they say that both are the same).  However, they also attack Democrats.  A recent example was when Stewart interviewed President Obama during his October 28 show.  Yes, that’s right; President Obama went to the comedy program and let himself be the target of Stewart’s irony and chastisement.  Why would a President do this?  First of all because he knows that Stewart’s audience is a friendly one and secondly, because he is very cognizant of the show’s power, especially among young viewers.  And those viewers translate into votes.

Stewart confronted Obama by basically saying that he had disappointed those who’d voted for him because the health care reform had not been sufficiently wide reaching and encompassing.  That it had been too timid.  The President disagreed with the term timid and responded by stating that “you’ve got thirty million people that will be getting health insurance as a consequence of this.” But the point is that Stewart, a comedian, has the power to have the President as a guest on his show and that he asked him questions of a level of irreverence that journalists would surely not dare ask.

Of course, Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist.  A journalist is not there to make jokes, but to find out information and later share it with the audience in a professional and objective manner.  Not to give his or her opinion.  That being said, if hundreds of thousands of people attend an event such as the one held by Stewart and Colbert and millions more religiously follow what they say on their “newscasts” on TV, it seems to me that the phenomenon goes beyond some well-written and told jokes.  It is a true sociological phenomenon.

The shows’ audiences tend to be progressive and fairly well educated.  Their guests include academicians such as economists and historians, as well as politicians and former presidents.  Many of them are conservatives as well.  People such as Stewart say that many of the so- called experts featured on news shows (be they liberals or conservatives) aren’t qualified to speak authoritatively about the subjects they discuss and, therefore, many of the shows where political issues are discussed end up turning into an endless stream of consciousness full of screams where very little objective information is discussed.

These comedy shows became very popular because of the war in Iraq.  Many people watched them because they say these shows were the only place where they could truly get the real story of what was happening in the war.  Many criticized traditional news media because it was not more critical of the government.  Both when it came to finding out the truth about the government’s accusations against Baghdad as justification for the war, as well as, later, the development of the war itself.  Especially, the human and financial cost of the war.  These critics added that the media had censored itself regarding important issues because it was wartime and it was not popular to criticize the government when US soldiers were dying in the Iraqi battlefield.

Whether or not these charges against mainstream media are true, the reality is that these comedy shows built a loyal and massive audience.  And whether the accusations are true or not, those who watch the shows believe that watching mainstream media they do not get the whole story that they need to find out what is happening in their country and the world.  For that they have to go to Comedy Central or HBO.

It isn’t true that there is nowhere in the United States where someone can’t go to get first-rate and completely serious news information.  The news programs produced by public television and radio (PBS and NPR) are an example of this serious and in-depth news reporting.  It is also true that many people criticize the verbal disputes and the level of entertainment on cable television, but they are the same people who are first in line to enjoy those dialectic matches.

However, it is also true that there should be many more options than PBS and NPR to get news in a serious and in-depth manner and that should also be the role of the mainstream media.  It is fine to have popular programs as part of a channel’s schedule.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be entertained, especially when the success of that type of programming is key to the general survival of those channels.  But it should also be an obligation to have a news department whose principal objective is not the audience levels, but to providing a public service to its viewers.

We are dealing with very serious matters, such as the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the economic crisis.  Issues that affect, in one way or another, the lives of every person in this country, not to mention people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world.

I am a journalist and if our profession isn’t able to satisfy the public’s need for information to the point where millions of people watch comedy shows to find out what is really happening, I think we have a very serious problem.  I reiterate that these people don’t only watch these shows to laugh, but to find out information that they say they can’t find out anywhere else.  I don’t think it’s a good sign for my profession if a large portion of the public chooses a comedian instead of a journalist like me to find out what is going on.

These comedians are brilliant, make jokes and analysis that are truly hilarious.  However, if they become an important source of information to the public, and not only a source of comedy, there is a truly serious problem for our profession.

Do we clearly differentiate opinion from information?  Have we become activists instead of journalists? Are we not sufficiently aggressive when it comes time to make governments or institutions accountable?  Have many media outlets lost their vocation of public service?  And, have newsrooms become another way to raise audience levels instead of focusing on informing the public about issues of vital importance to them?  Why don’t politicians and institutions make it a requirement that to be able to secure a broadcasting license a channel must have professional newscasts that are not ratings-driven in its programming?

I love to laugh watching a good comedy show.  However, I fear that the success of events such as yesterday’s on the Mall in Washington, DC has a worrisome angle:  they are clear proof of our inability, as journalists, to do our job well.  And this isn’t because of lack of professionals who are willing to do their jobs well on a daily basis.  There are many who, day-to-day, show their worth as journalists.  Well-educated people, for whom journalism is a vocation and who work endless hours to inform the public about what’s going on.  Journalists who, in addition, have had to face enormous challenges to be able to bring quality stories on air.  The problem is that they don’t have the necessary resources at hand to do their job well.  As I said before, I love comedy shows, but I hope that, at least regarding news reporting, we can offer our audience what they need and that Comedy Central can be watched to laugh at reality, not to inform about it.

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One Response to “Comedy and Journalism”

  1. Latesha Anstine Says:

    Thanks. I’m not sure if I ever agree with these comedians but the thing they did last week was pretty neat to witness.

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