Apr. 18, 2005: Good Journalism Is Not a Joke

UGA journalism professor Conrad Fink has more to worry about these days than whether or not I am going to invite him over for milk and cookies. If Anna Ferguson’s column didn’t scare the hell out of him, he needs to find another line of work.

Miss Ferguson is a senior journalism major at the University of Georgia. In a recent column published in the student newspaper, The Red and Black, and reprinted in the Atlanta newspapers, Miss Ferguson is quoted as saying that she establishes her news values by watching “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Central network. This show, for those of you who are not hep, is a parody of current news events, which most of us see for what it is — a joke.

Miss Ferguson says she tried to watch the real news — since she “liked learning about the news” — but, alas, she dreaded the thought of “having to drudge through another hour of the same boring stuff: the same dull politics, the same weather forecast and high school sports reports. Like most people my age watching the news, I just didn’t care.”

She has a point. What can be more boring than watching the perilous efforts to establish democracy in the Middle East, wrestling with the issue of whether or not there will be enough money in Social Security for Anna Ferguson when she retires or witnessing a bunch of people from South Asia having their lives shattered by a tsunami. Who wants to hear yucky stuff like that? We want laughs. After all, what kind of world would this be if the only joke we knew was our Ambassador to Outer Space Cynthia McKinney?

Give the young woman credit. She didn’t switch over to Comedy Central without a fight. She says, “I tried the regular news, I really did. But I could never get a firm grasp of what these talking heads were saying to me, and I just couldn’t watch anymore. But ‘The Daily Show’ takes a new approach to the news, saying ‘Hey. This is what happened, here is what we think about it, and now here is a joke. Laugh.’”

As absurd as I find Anna Ferguson’s comments, I’m not laughing. She needs to understand that news isn’t meant to be funny. News is serious business. If she is indicative of her age group — and she says she is — then we are raising a generation that wants to dumb down and trivialize critical issues that will confront them long after I am gone. She and her cohorts are going to live with constant threats of terrorism. We haven’t scratched the surface of groups that will attempt to do us harm in years to come. Funny? I don’t think so.

There will be assaults on our freedoms from both sides of the political spectrum. These freedoms were hard won by the sacrifices of earlier generations, but can be easily lost through the indifference of one disinterested generation. That’s not funny, that’s scary. There will be racism and poverty. Neither is amusing if you happen to be the victim. Public education must become a priority in our country. Otherwise, the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue to grow. I see nothing worth a “Daily Show” joke in that.

We need journalists willing and able to grab our nanosecond attention span, maneuver through the labyrinth of new technologies that are coming and tell us with authority and balance what is happening and why. If we need laughs, we can always rent a Marx Brothers film.

I don’t know if Anna Ferguson is one of Fink’s charges or not, but it doesn’t matter. By their words and deeds both represent my alma mater, the Grady College of Journalism, by their words and deeds and neither makes me very comfortable about the future. Professor Fink can’t take criticism without sulking, and Ferguson can’t take the 6 o’clock news without a punch line. Tomorrow’s journalists and those who teach them must understand that news is news and comedy is comedy, and never the twain shall meet. The journalism profession is a noble calling, not a cheap joke.