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No Laughing Matter

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009; 10:07 AM

If you think Jon Stewart is merely funny, you're missing the point.

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The Comedy Central guy is one of the sharpest media critics around.

I know he feels strongly about the shortcomings of the news business -- and who doesn't? -- because I've interviewed him about it, and the one time I was on the "Daily Show," he carried on at some length, long past the allotted time for our discussion. Only the studio audience got to see that part.

Thanks to his young army of TiVo sleuths, Stewart comes up with tape that either a) makes journalists look slightly ridiculous, or b) shows that they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

He does this to politicians as well, of course. And the show is shaped by his opinions. Jon was no fan of Bush or the war in what he calls Mess O' Potamia.

I argue in my book "Reality Show" that even though Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) do fake news, they are having an undeniable impact on real news. And not just because Brian Williams is a frequent "Daily" guest.

Plenty of news shows now use quick-cut editing to show pols contradicting themselves or copying others or sticking to rigid talking points. They are straining to be hip, but they also know what's effective. "NBC Nightly News" and the "CBS Evening News" have also played clips from Stewart's program.

Stewart turned his fire on CNBC last week, running eight minutes on various anchors, pundits and guests assuring the world that, for instance, Bear Stearns was solvent, Lehman Brothers wasn't in trouble, and Merrill Lynch had plenty of capital. All that and more turned out to be devastatingly wrong. (The video assault was triggered when Rick Santelli, he of the Chicago rant, canceled a planned appearance.)

I have a lot of respect for CNBC's top journalists. And you could deliver a similar indictment of financial journalists overall -- that with some exceptions, they operated on the assumption that the giant banks and mega-corporations were on sound footing and whatever risks they faced were manageable. The most egregious failure, in my view, was failing to fully report on the drastic cutbacks in federal regulation -- the SEC's shift to virtual voluntarism and the rise of a shadow banking system that sliced and diced and swapped paper beyond the reach of the authorities.

Too many of CNBC's guests are fund managers with an interest in talking up stocks and analysts whose investment houses do business with corporate America. But don't take my word for it; check out the video.

At the Philly Daily News, Will Bunch essentially asks why journalists don't have the same kind of guts:

"The Stewart piece . . . got the kind of eyeballs that most newsrooms would kill for in this digital age -- planted atop many, many major political, media and business Web sites -- and the kind of water-cooler chatter that journalists would crave in any age. In a time when newspapers are flat-out dying if not dealing with bankruptcy or massive job losses, while other types of news orgs aren't faring much better, the journalistic success of a comedy show rant shouldn't be viewed as a stick in the eye -- but a teachable moment. Why be a curmudgeon about kids today getting all their news from a comedy show, when it's not really that hard to join Stewart in his own idol-smashing game.


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