Archive for Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Skewering the news not the same as gathering it

May 2, 2006

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The big topic of conversation around the coffee house on Sunday was Stephen Colbert's weekend appearance at the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner.

You've probably heard about it, too. Colbert and his permanently arched eyebrows roasted President Bush - who was just a few feet away - thrilling liberals and angering conservatives.

"I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq," said Colbert, who is probably best known for his fake news show, "The Colbert Report," on Comedy Central.

His performance was, depending on your point of view, either Unforgivably Rude or Speaking Truth to Power. At the coffee shop, at least, the latter view prevailed.

"There's a thesis statement to be written," one friend said, "about how humor is doing a better job at news than the news."

Well, no.

You hear that kind of statement a lot these days - especially with the advent of Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," which reputedly is the news source of choice for a lot of young Americans. And if it isn't the satirists who are being praised, it's bloggers - such as "Daily Kos" on the left and "Power Line" on the right - who supposedly do a better job than the Mainstream Media (MSM) at telling us what's happening in our country.

Now, I don't deny the influence of comedians on the one side and political bloggers on the other - and I don't even deny that each has a useful (if often exhaustingly shrill) role to play in our national dialogue. But none of them could do their jobs without the efforts of everyday reporters and editors whose work is so constantly derided.

Simply put: Mainstream journalists put out the news that the jokesters mock and the bloggers spin (and, in some cases, amplify).

In fact, given the rise of the Internet, I'd say there's probably more quality journalism - and more access to it - than ever before. When I was in college, I could read The New York Times a day or two later. Now, online, I can see news updates in real time. Same for the Washington Post, L.A. Times and just about every other newspaper and newsmagazine in the English-speaking world. Amazing.

What has changed is this: attitudes. I'm not the first person to notice that America is fractious and polarized these days, so divided that we're no longer able to determine a presidential election by midnight on election day.

What people want, I suspect, is not news - but news that confirms their world view. They'll complain about bias when they don't get it, then flee to the media that is openly biased and think they're getting the whole truth. This phenomenon is not the exclusive province of liberals or conservatives.

But mocking the news is not news gathering. Having an opinion about the news is not news gathering. News gathering is news gathering.

And that's no joke.

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