Colbert-Stewart rally raises question: Where is journalism headed?

Media organizations have been wrestling with whether the Colbert-Stewart rally in Washington is a political or merely entertainment event. The answer could help show where the boundaries of good journalism lie today.

Charles Sykes/AP
Stephen Colbert, left, Jon Stewart and Steve Carell appear on stage at Comedy Central's 'Night Of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Concert For Autism Education' at the Beacon Theatre in New York, Oct. 2. The Colbert-Stewart rally in DC has raised questions for many about the future of journalism and the sometimes fine line between political and entertainment news.

If you thought the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ” coming up on Oct. 30 in Washington was just a date for some good laughs and maybe hot entertainment, think again. It is also shaping up as yet another event in the ongoing dialogue about where journalism is headed in the brave world of new media, where points of view are welcome.

That dialogue is attracting plenty of attention these days. On Wednesday, NPR fired news analyst Juan Williams after he disclosed a personal opinion on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Plane passengers in Muslim garb make him nervous, he said.

Last week, NPR was also at the head of a flurry of newsroom memos involving the Oct. 30 rally. The issue: Is the rally a political or merely entertainment event? That question gets at whether it’s appropriate for off-duty members of a media organization to attend the event, which will be led by the Comedy Central duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The answer could indicate where the boundaries of good journalism lie in the swiftly approaching era of post-traditional broadcast and print media.

NPR’s verdict: “Political.” Hence, guidelines dating to 2004 govern whether or not the organization’s reporters can attend.

NPR’s Dana Davis Rehm wrote: “The answer is they can – if they are assigned to cover the events.... But news staff and others covered by NPR's ethics policy should not go [to the rally] ....”

Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington then weighed in, blasting NPR’s position as archaic and untenable in today’s world. These days, transparency – not what she calls a “false objectivity” – is the new guiding star for journalism.

“I see this as emblematic of mainstream media’s contrived objectivity when they refuse to take a stand on ‘Sanity,’ ” she says. The Oct. 30 rally is not political, she says, adding, “Jon and Stephen will not urge people to vote for one issue or candidate. It is not a partisan rally.” Ms. Huffington is sponsoring 200 buses to transport some 11,000 people from New York City to the rally.

“The Juan Williams firing is one thing,” says Jeff Cohen, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College in New York and founder of the media watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). There are certain things reporters don’t do in either new or old media, he says. Smearing a group of people is “just bigotry, plain and simple,” Mr. Cohen says.

Still, the ship of legacy media has sailed, he says. “I’m with Arianna,” he says. He suggests that Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert are doing more to cultivate the democratic spirit when they poke fun at leadership than the mainstream media is doing in their reports.

“I’ve been scrutinizing the media for decades, and I would say it is a rough time for traditional media but great for journalism,” Cohen says.

Voices such as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo and Glenn Greenwald of Salon could be examples of where journalism is headed. “They make no pretense of having no opinions,” Cohen says, but they do their homework, source everything with facts, and glean information from as many sources as possible. Given the avalanche of information available, transparency – not control – is the coin of the new realm, he adds.

The traditional values of journalism are under siege, says Kelly McBride, who is on the faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “If you work in a newsroom, part of your mission is to speak across the political spectrum,” she says. She points to the language of the Colbert and Stewart rally: The satiric dig implied in “Restore Sanity” is a swipe at the earlier Glenn Beck rally, which was entitled, “Restoring Honor.”

In her view, conservative viewers who feel their values are being disparaged by Stewart or Colbert will make assumptions about reporters whom they may see at the rally. These viewers could then feel alienated from the news outlet.

“We should be concerned about preserving our standards of fairness and independence,” Ms. McBride says. Audience habits and economic models may change, she says, but “that can’t change our standards.”

However, failures on the standards front are a key factor in the shift in audience loyalties from the large, corporate media outlets to a more democratic information structure. “The main reason mainstream media is under siege is because on major story after major story, they got it wrong,” says Cohen. “It’s not because reporters marched in Washington,” he says. “It’s because of the botched reporting in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and the totally missed financial crisis. The independent new voices have blossomed because of their content failures.”

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