Saturday, January 15, 2011

Random thoughts for a Saturday

It was heartening to see a couple of really positive blog posts Friday about journalism careers. For one, Robert Hernandez at Online Journalism Review wrote about how more journalism jobs seem to be available now, a bit of a thaw from the retrenchment that's been going on in recent years. Also, Mark Luckie of 10,000 words posted this guide for doing well at an interview for such a job.

When I hold academic advising sessions with students, I always ask what they have in mind at the end of the road ... what type of career they hope to start with after graduation. A surprisingly large, and growing, proportion answer along the lines of "I have NO idea..." (often with that sort of emphasis on the "no," meaning none). I'm going to start suggesting they check out journalism again. With all of the bad press (pun intended) about the state of legacy journalism industries that's been a hard sell in recent years. Maybe we're entering an era where it again will be cool (and feasible) to aspire to a journalistic career.

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On a totally unrelated note ... while I love the Daily Show and think Jon Stewart generally does a great job of most things, there is one thing about him that annoys me and, in my view, undermines what he tries to accomplish with the show. All too often, he can't get out of his own way when he asks a guest a question. The interview on Wednesday's show with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a perfect example.

Stewart had a particular premise he was pursuing, and wanted Pawlenty to comment upon, and it was this: why are conservatives, and GOP leaders in particular, so vociferous in crying "tyranny" over the actions of the Obama administration that expand federal authority and spending when they were so accepting of expansion of federal mandates and spending under the Bush administration?

It's a great question, and one I've wondered about. Getting someone like Pawlenty -- who likely will be throwing his hat into the GOP presidential ring -- to answer it would have been an interesting thing to see. Stewart even had the perfect foil to pursue this, in the No Child Left Behind Act, which hugely expanded federal authority in local education. He even tried the tack of: imagine what the reaction of the right in the current environment would be if Obama had proposed that law rather than Bush?

But rather than just asking that in a straightforward way, and waiting for Pawlenty to answer it, Stewart asked it and kept talking, and talking, and by the time he was through Pawlenty could just ignore the basic question. Stewart does this often -- asking six questions at once, sidetracking himself in the process of asking the questions to throw in some jokes and/or observations, and the like. In doing this he generally buries a good, and often important, question in so much dross that the interviewee is either unable to answer it or can avoid answering it if he doesn't want because he can just respond to something else in Stewart's info barrage.

Maybe I'm expecting too much. Stewart is, after all, a comedian not a journalist. But at the same time, he is really intelligent, often has good questions about public affairs he wants to pursue with guests who are involved in the issues, and has the willingness to ask some tough or nasty question even some journalists wouldn't. Maybe that's precisely because he's not a journalist; he doesn't have to worry about currying favor with the interviewees as sources for future stories.

But I still think he could do a better job of this much of the time. When I teach my intro journalism students about interviewing, one of the key skills I stress is learning when to shut up and let the source talk. I kind of wish Jon Stewart would do the same sometimes, especially with his political interviewees.

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