When Jon Stewart, the host of the comedy TV news program The Daily Show, calls the scary-looking newspaper columnist and TV pundit Robert Novak a "douche bag for liberty,'' is Jon Stewart being a journalist?
It certainly doesn't sound like he's being objective, of course. But then again, doesn't Stewart's phrase also sound like it contains a grain of truth? More truth, even, than you might expect to encounter in an average mainstream TV news program on network or cable channels? What's up with that?
Exactly when did sarcasm become the new sincerity?
Kris Bunton, a professor of journalism at the University of St. Thomas, told the colloquium that more than half the students in one of her recent undergraduate class raised their hands when she asked them ''How many of you think that Jon Stewart is a journalist?'' That was her wake-up call to the true depth of a sea change in journalism, and public attitudes about journalism, that many of us have experienced recently.
Several of the colloquium participants reported that their ''aha moment'' came via an academic research study conducted last summer by the University of Indiana, which compared the news content of The Daily Show to mainstream network and cable TV newscasts. The result: the Daily Show reported as much or more actual news as its journalistic counterparts.
The Daily Show is a great example of the usefulness of the ''what is journalism?'' approach, as compared to asking ''who is a journalist?'' Because asking whether Jon Stewart is a journalist is an invitation to engage in endless on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answers that amount to measuring the distance between the guy we see on TV, and the pure journalist guy in Plato's heaven.
In some ways Jon Stewart is like the journalist in Plato's heaven, and in some he's ways not.
In either case, though, who cares? Just as who cares what a car is, as long as it gets us to work in the morning? By contrast, as soon as you shift the question to asking "is this journalism?'', useful answers begin to appear.
The Daily Show a couple of months ago spent a solid seven minutes reporting on a speech delivered by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who chairs a Senate a committee with influential oversight over Internet matters. The speech went virtually unnoticed by network and cable TV news channels.
Yet the Daily Show highlighted the speech because it transpired, upon listening to the Senator, that he hadn't a clue what the Internet is, or how it works. He used absurd metaphors, including ''the Internet is a series of tubes,'' to blunder his way through a speech that amounted to posturing on behalf of special media business lobbyists who had obviously plied him recently.
The glaring gap between the Senator's legislative power on Internet issues, and his actual knowledge of the Internet, seemed newsworthy to The Daily Show. Indeed, in any journalism newsroom, such a judgment, if the newsroom truly operated under the principle of serving public interests, would be entirely correct and uncontroversially so. It would be entirely in keeping with a definition of journalism as an activity that brings matters of important public interest to everyone in society.
Therefore, that The Daily Show highlighted the speech and the mainstream news did not, means that in this case (as in many others), The Daily Show was producing journalism and that mainstream news organizations were not.
From such a view, the fact that the truth of the matter was offered to the public in the form of parody, as opposed to the form of ''objective'' journalism, matters not a whit. Obviously in this case a comedian delivered the truth, and the Platonic man-in-a-trenchcoat did not.
That many young people say Jon Stewart is a journalist is therefore deeply encouraging. That's because those students obviously care more deeply about the truth than do about the form in which it's delivered. They obviously know the truth when they see it. They've got eagle eyes for bullshit served on a silver platter, and also for truth that's buried in the muck.
That they are scavenging the muck in droves is a bright omen. That the truth is so rare a commodity today that its appearance on a comedy show amounts to breaking news -- a dog bites man oddity -- is a dark one.