You've had the sensation. You DVR up last night's The Daily Show or Colbert Report, expecting some laughs and relaxation, and you get them. But you get more: You get news reporting, stealthy news reporting that pretends to be comedy, but is actual news.
Last week, I loved Jon Stewart's disarming grilling of toady-turned-confessor Scott McClellan. He wouldn't let McClellan get away with his week-long shtick that nobody was lying, just "misleading." Even the best of the card-carrying journalists doing interviews usually let go of the tough questions when interviewees give them non-answers, and that was characteristic of their McClellan interviews as well. Stewart didn't, and he made his point about the very nature of White House information management and duplicity.
Cool, I thought -- and entertaining. Then Colbert came on, with an interview of George Will,
whose body temp has apparently never exceeded 95 degrees. Still, through the brilliantly exchanged repartee (tennis for intellectuals), he got Will to talk about his agnosticism. Colbert's got one of the best poker faces in the biz, but you could see the combination of triumph and surprise on his face, when he elicited that one. It was an amazing moment in an otherwise curious discussion of basic American values.
That's stuff you don't see in many places.
The emergence of comedy as real news is now getting certified as the Pew people compared, in May, its impact on traditional news and made this recent conclusion:
“In its choice of topics, its use of news footage to deconstruct the manipulations by public figures, and its tendency toward pointed satire over playing just for laughs, “The Daily Show” performs a function that is close to journalistic in nature—getting people to think critically about the public square....In that sense, it is a variation of the tradition of Russell Baker, Art Hoppe, Art Buchwald, H.L. Mencken and other satirists who once graced the pages of American newspapers." David Weir's take on the stats and meaning behind that statement is worth reading here.
In April, David made a similar point in comparing Jon Stewart's take with that of the New York Times on the cozy embedding of military experts into media. David lambasted the Times' report as "so boring as to make sleeping pills outmoded". He then gave the BNET Media Industry Award for the Best Political Report on Television — in the Context of the Best Business Plan ( or BMIAFTBPROT-ITCOTBBP) goes to The Daily Show, concluding "...of course the award for the best business plan goes to everybody who’s thinking outside of the old media box, which in due time will be recognized as the coffin it is."
But it's not just comedy that's changing the nature of what we consider news, or journalism, or sometimes, more fundamentally, what we consider to be journalistic operations.
Another strong journalistic voice that is emerging is the radio version of This American Life, on NPR. This week's program took on the case of The Prosecutor, a brilliant exploration of how politics of the day have messed with fundamental notions of justice. And in early May, host Ira Glass put together the best piece I've heard or read on just how the subprime meltdown happened, in The Giant Pools of Money. It was elemental, colorful, understandable and mind-blowing.
As 60 Minutes proved in an earlier generation, news doesn't have to be boring, or only presented in traditional ways.
One more example of how the very nature of journalism is changing. Check out On the Media's segment on "The Olbermann Effect." It details how MSNBC took some time to find an identity. Its formula is now beating Fox News some nights, and it's got a clear edge on the other old networks, CBS and ABC. The formula: a newer media mix of the modern-day-Murrow Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews' Joy of Politics persona put together with the authority (what Les Moonves has called the ''voice of God") of Old Media stalwarts Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams and Tim Russert. That's recombinant journalism, and that's clearly the future of our craft.
"Multimedia journalism" is much more than adding moving pictures and sound to a basic print report put online. Multimedia journalism is being born in unexpected and exciting ways. Most print-based news organizations (and indeed most traditional broadcast-based news companies) haven't really understood that yet. As these worlds collide, energetically, ironically or mordantly, we'll see a new journalism being born that better fits our times.