Monday, March 16, 2009

The Teachable Moment Jon Stewart Gave Us

The recent hullabaloo about the week long brouhaha between John Stewart and Jim Cramer on The Daily Show started me thinking, and not just about how I could work the words "hullabaloo" and "brouhaha" into a single sentence.


As any reader of Shakespeare's King Lear would know, the court jester, the clown, is often the only one who is able to speak the truth, and he does so by throwing a very thin veil of humor over the more serious subjects he's addressing. While Stewart and the audience yukked it up at Cramer and CNBC's expense, he drove home a very troublesome problem that is endemic not just to CNBC, but to modern multi-media journalism as a whole. Most TV and web journalists these days are simply taking information that is handed to them and distributing it without vetting it in the least possible ways. Stewart's point in a nutshell is that Cramer and his ilk would simply talk to the heads of the big companies and report back what was told to them without doing any real digging to see if there's more to the story. Had CNBC's employees practiced due diligence, they would have seen through the problems that companies like Bear Stearns was having, and Jim Cramer wouldn't have had to sit there sweating and shaking as Stewart ran the clip of him forcefully recommending to his audience not to jump off that inevitable train wreck.

But investigative reporting takes time, effort, and most of all sharp, talented investigators. I have no problem believing that many of the young people going into communications and journalism degrees in college are sharp and talented, I worry that they really don't understand the time and effort pieces of the equation.

To me it seems that much of this problem with reporting began with the adventing of blogging. I LOVE blogging, and I truly feel that it has liberated the would-be writers of the world to a degree that hasn't been matched since the creation of the printing press. Blogging gives instant, unlimited publishing ability to virtually everyone completely free of cost to them. I once read a blog that was written by a homeless man typing at a computer terminal in a public library. He got more hits than my hometown newspaper has subscribers.

But while the egalitarian in me pumps my fist in the air at thought of this unrestricted access, I do chafe at what gets put into blogs and is called "news." Many of the most popular ones are really gossip purveyors or distributors of press releases, accented by snarky commentary by the...ahem...reporters. The brass ring for these type of information outlets isn't the renown of their peers for their investigative tenacity; it's who can break the story and get the most eyes on the screen. The instantaneous nature of the web has worked against using traditional leg work, and has trained the up-and-coming would-be reporters out there to grab whatever is tossed at them and run with it.

Sadly, many digital natives have grown up thinking this is the norm, and as a result even some of the brightest potential journalists feel that all that is required to be a reporter is to sit and wait for news to come to them or simply make stuff up. I taught high school journalism and was the advisor for the school newspaper for over a decade. In the last couple of years I was involved, it was increasingly difficult to get sign up for the elective. Oh, many were interested, but that interest would evaporate after I would talk with them about what they hoped to accomplish on staff, and they would reply that they would love to do editorials. When they found out that only the editor-in-chief, always a senior who'd pay'd his or her dues for three years on staff as a reporter, got to do regular op/ed peices. They'd then say they would like to do reviews of music, movies, video games, or TV shows. I would tell them that those would be an aspect of the course, but they would be mainly required to do some hard news (well, hard for a high school with a population of about 700). They would have to interview administrators, teachers, students, community members, and business owners. They would have to attend school board meetings. They would have to research NCAA regulations and some school law.

Then they would smile, nod, and go sign up for photography down in the art wing.

They saw real journalism as a chore, not as an important part of a healthy democracy.

If there is a teachable moment in the video of Jon Stewart looking down at the notes on his desk and calmly, but authoritatively telling his producer, "Run tape 210! Run tape 213!" while Jim Cramer squirmed and looked like he was doing his best to hold onto the contents of his bowels, it's that students need to know more than simply how to embed a video in a blog, how to edit a wiki page, and how to format a press release so that it appears that you wrote it yourself. It's not a matter of teaching them to use the technology tools out there. They are going to blog and tweet and post videos to Youtube no matter what we do in school. It's our job to help them realize how to use those tools responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. "Brouhaha" and "hullabaloo" are both actually words of the day in my class, and have been for years. That makes me happy, but a little sad that those could be new words for high schoolers.