Ed Madison writes for the Huffington Post today that every town should have its own Jon Stewart. The logic is based on the knowledge that Stewart is trusted news person on TV and among the most admired journalists today. Madison also notes that local news is in trouble and that comedy has always played a role in the political process.
These facts make many in the journalism profession shake their heads in disgust. However, I’m suggesting we should be inspired by these trends rather than dismayed. Specifically, local broadcasters ought to be actively engaged in finding their own Jon Stewart-type personalities in their communities. I’m not suggesting that newscasts change their entire formats to become comedy shows. However, a lighthearted segment or two that takes a satirical look at local headlines would liven up an otherwise predictable and failing format. This is particularly true if local news has any hope of attracting the younger demographic of viewers who show little interests in their broadcasts.
John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record and a long-time blogger and media observer, responded with what most of us think.
I don’t think it’ll happen for these three reasons:
* It’s hard. Doing good topical comedy isn’t like reporting a story. Stewart has a team of writers helping him with his scripts. Who has the money to hire those folks?
* Local television hasn’t been a home for pointed editorial positions since the days when the late Jesse Helms was holding forth on WRAL. That was 50 years ago.
* Television viewers – like newspaper readers – are traditionalists. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and, as we have learned with editorial cartoons, what’s funny to one is annoying to the next. And political humor, as Stewart does? Well, alienating viewers isn’t a dominating feature of TV’s DNA.
There’s another, perhaps more difficult obstacle, and that’s that in a local community, you’re making fun of your neighbors, and that’s vastly more problematic than you might think. It’s very tricky business to try to be funny about a local person or institution than it is some distant object of scorn or ridicule. Despite the connected nature of our culture today, it’s harder to dodge a flying fist when it’s right next to you. There’s also that advertiser influence thing that we’re all supposed to ignore, right?
Perhaps the mayor is fair game, but what about the mayor’s wife, children and family? They have local friends and neighbors, too. Local news confronts these problems every day, and I have to believe that trying to inject humor into the news about the guy across-the-street is far too dicey to even try.
It’s not that humor or outrageous can’t be done. I’m reminded of the old WLUK-TV team in the early 70s with Stanley Siegel, “Action Man” Glen Loyd, and a host of extremely talented and memorable people. This is the group that drove a Volkswagon into the Green River to see if it would float. Siegel was a very funny guy who once immersed himself in lemon jello to “see what the fruits in cafeterias felt like.”
So while comedy has been tried — and with occasional success — I doubt it’s the solution to declining ratings. Besides, as many suggest, it isn’t Stewart’s writing or comedy that makes him so popular; it the fact that he’s doing the job that the mainstream press long ago gave up, and if that’s true, then we have no place to look except the mirror.