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What journalists need?

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A recent column by the Globe and Mail's Lawrence Martin argues that what journalism needs is more "Jon Stewart outrage."

I'm a big fan of Stewart's The Daily Show, in particular Stewart’s comedic wit and journalistic sensibilities. He is a smart analyst and a devastating critic. And he was never better than he was recently while surgically dismantling Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money.

The television hosts had been sniping at each other on their own shows, and through the media, for several weeks. Stewart complained that Cramer had misled American investors about the impending collapse of the financial services industry, and in particular continued to tout stocks of firms like Bear Stearns weeks before they collapsed in an implosion of unsupportable sub-prime mortgages.

Cramer responded that Stewart was taking him out of context, and accused The Comedy Network star of unfairly tarnishing his reputation.

The showdown took place on March 12 when Cramer, in a spasm of extremely poor judgment, decided to appear on Stewart’s show.

Cramer had been making the tour of network television talk shows getting the softball treatment, and must have thought he could make it through 12 minutes with Stewart.

Wrong.

The interview wasn’t really an interview. It was a horrifying, humiliating lecture that even hardcore Stewart fans like myself had trouble watching.

Perhaps if Cramer had watched Stewart’s horrifying attack on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, he would have had second thoughts about stepping into Stewart’s torrent of indignation. In that appearance, the smarmy Crossfire hosts thought they would ambush Stewart, who was highly critical of the politics show and touring the talk shows promoting a book.

Wrong again.

Cramer isn’t really defensible; his own checkered past as an investment advisor has left abundant evidence of his morally flexible standards. And Stewart was bang-on in his allegation that the business media in the U.S. was complicit in the false expectation that the sub-prime market could just go on forever making people money without fail.

Getting back to Lawrence Martin, is this the kind of outrage, or method, that we need in Canadian journalism?

Martin’s argument is that we need to confront the more conservative elements in business and government, and take a more progressive, less establishment view of the way the world works.

I don’t disagree. In fact, I think an angry journalist is an effective journalist.

But I’m concerned that if we don’t remain somewhat faithful to the principles of fairness and balance will not help build journalistic credibility. Stewart doesn’t have to be fair, and that’s what makes him funny.

Everyone in the mainstream media, including Stewart, are under attack from the left, who think we’re too conservative, and the right, who believe we’re part of a liberal/Liberal conspiracy to keep the Tories from governing. And then, we’re under attack from the alternative media for all these things and a few others.

We’re gatekeepers, elitists, socialists, establishment apologists, opportunists, communists. We either challenge the government too much to be fair, or we’re unfair because we don’t challenge the government enough.

I think Mr. Martin, one of Canada’s most respected journalists (at least by me and many journalists I know), is confusing the often-narrow band of commentary that exists in the national media, and the broader band of commentary and analysis in the broader Canadian media.

There are more perspectives in the broader mainstream media, it just takes a little more time to ferret them out. And the fact that the consumer can’t make up his or her mind whether we’re right wing or left wing, socialist or conservative, elitist or anarchist, is actually somewhat comforting.

Perhaps it means we’re in the right place, most of the time. Perhaps.

As for outrage, I’m a big fan. Even if we don’t adopt the tone and style of Stewart’s commentary, we should try to adopt the sharp edge.

And we should also learn from Stewart’s example and remember that if you really want to challenge someone, you’ve got to do it face to face. That is a lesson that everyone – alternative or mainstream – should live up to.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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