DÉJÀ VU: THE NEW YORK TIMES AND THE DAILY SHOW, THE GRETCHEN MORGENSON EDITION

January 14, 2014

One of my simple pleasures is watching the first 20 minutes or so of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Comedy genius aside, the folks responsible for putting together the opening “news” segment appreciate better than anyone how farcical political discourse via mainstream media has become. The show’s writers regularly serve up heaping portions of parody that mock our leaders, and the news people who have abdicated their charge to keep them honest. If The Daily Show didn’t use humor to drive home its messages, it would be just too depressing to watch.

Yet, as much as I applaud the show and its mission, I would never in a million years advise clients to appear in one of its feature segments, unless they had decades of experience engaging comedians and pranksters. Unlike a real news interview where serious reporters seek to elicit someone’s insights or viewpoint, The Daily Show uses its guests as foils to help drive home a predetermined story line. Even well educated people involved in highly commendable pursuits or causes come off looking befuddled.

So, for the life of me, I can’t understand how the New York Times allowed its columnist Gretchen Morgenson to be interviewed by The Daily Show. Is it possible that they had forgotten an infamous earlier, cringe-worthy go-round on the show four years ago? (To be fair, I’d probably have blocked it out, too.) Back in June 2009, “correspondent” Jason Jones had visited Times’ headquarters, “to find out why the last of a dying breed prefers aged news to real news.” No one from the Times who appeared on the segment came out looking good, especially assistant managing editor Rick Berke who is shown skimming a page as Jones dares him to disprove the accusation that the paper publishes “aged news” by just pointing out “one thing that happened today.”

More recently, Morgenson was interviewed by the show’s Samantha Bee for a segment about a highly dubious transaction conducted by the Blackstone Group that was pretty much ignored by the mainstream business media. Morgenson, to her credit, is one of the few remaining reporters to express repeated outrage about Wall Street’s machinations and wrongdoing, and when the next crisis happens she will be one of the few reporters to be able to legitimately claim, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” But as is painfully and immediately obvious when you watch the segment that aired last month, engaging comedians isn’t one of Morgenson’s strong suits.

That said, I take strong issue with related criticism from Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum who wrote that The Daily Show made itself look foolish for using Morgenson as the poster child of a complacent business press. The segment was The Daily Show at its finest, highlighting an ethically questionable business transaction largely overlooked by the mainstream media and explaining it in broad terms that were easily understandable. That the segment came at the expense of Morgenson shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with how the show operates. I don’t fault The Daily Show for Morgenson’s appearance debacle; I fault the editors of the New York Times who green-lighted the appearance.

The New York Times is unquestionably the greatest and most important news operation remaining in the U.S.  But in this day and age, simply putting out great journalism will no longer ensure its survival.  The company needs to be more judicious in protecting its brand and how it – and its reporters – are represented to a generation increasingly comfortable getting its news in doses of 140 characters at a time. For those who understand the importance of the Times and are concerned about its long-term survival, let’s hope that its only future relationship with The Daily Show is to write about it.