Agenda journalism – Wendy Mesley v Jon Stewart

One of these people is a "serious journalist" (Wendy Mesley; Jon Stewart)

One of these people is a “serious journalist” (Wendy Mesley; Jon Stewart)

As I practice the art of writing (e.g., novels, screenplays), I pay my bills by writing for the pharmaceutical trade publication DDNews. I consider myself more of an essayist and commentator more than a journalist, mainly because I have too much respect for journalists and the tightrope they walk balancing the need to produce a story and discover a story.

With that respect, however, comes a certain level of expectation, and in too many high-profile cases, those expectations are not being met.

The most recent case for me (and the prompt for this post) was an interview between CBC journalist and anchor Wendy Mesley and film director and host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart, who appeared on CBC’s The National on November 14.

CBC The National interview with Jon Stewart (Nov 14) (video)

The interview used as evidence Bahari worked with spies

The interview used as evidence Bahari worked with spies (Jason Jones, Maziar Bahari)

Ostensibly, the interview was meant to discuss Stewart’s new movie Rosewater  (trailer at bottom) and the events that led to the incarceration of journalist Maziar Bahari in Iran, the interrogation of whom involved video of Bahari’s discussions with a The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones.

Ironically, the interview became an attempted interrogation of Stewart on his culpability in Bahari’s incarceration and torture, and the broader question of satire feeding the flames of fanaticism.

To his credit, while dismissing the questions as ridiculous, Stewart responded to them with logic and tried to look at the bigger picture. Mesley, however, could not be shaken from her belief that there must be guilt and culpability.

This is where I take issue.

Although I believe it is important for a journalist to know what she wants to talk about when interviewing someone, I also believe it is beholden on the journalist to let the conversation happen and see where it goes.

When I interview someone for one of my news articles, I start with a list of questions based on my research of the topic and the person/organization being interviewed. Going in, I have an agenda.

But when the interview starts, most of those questions fall by the wayside and are replaced by bigger, more important discussions that I didn’t foresee. In short, I listen to what the interviewee has to tell me and then adjust the conversation.

I completely understand that if someone is being evasive on a topic, a journalist may want to harder press a specific topic or series of questions, but in the Stewart interview, there was no evasion. He simply did not give the answers Mesley wanted, and she refused to accept them, as she is wont on many pieces throughout her years with the CBC.

Delightfully, toward the end of their conversation, Stewart called her on this, accusing her of not believing anything he said. She clearly did not do her homework on him, because she was uncomfortable with his challenge.

Sadly, this meant that the interview became about the interview and not the subjects that might have been vastly more interesting and were decidedly more important: political fanaticism, satire as a weapon, the erosion of journalism (ironically), human endurance.

An opportunity for insightful exchange was largely missed (Stewart did his best to talk about these things).

For anyone who thinks you might be interviewed at some point in your lifetime, study Stewart’s approach to this interview and any other.

For anyone who thinks you might become a journalist, study Mesley’s approach to this interview and pull a Costanza…do the opposite.

There are too many important issues to be discussed in the news to have the conversation high-jacked by a faulty agenda.

In the meantime, if Mesley wants to be an editorialist or commentator, do so. The CBC has several (e.g., Rex Murphy).

 

PS Some might argue that because I work for a trade publication, my questions are apt to be softball as the publication’s agenda is to suck up to the industry. One: I call bullshit. And two: read my stuff.

Happier times well after the events of Rosewater

Happier times well after the events of Rosewater (Jason Jones, Maziar Bahari)

See also: