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:

21 thoughts on “Agenda journalism – Wendy Mesley v Jon Stewart

  1. Well said… as a Canadian I was left a little embarrassed by Wendy Mesley attempt to pigeon hole Jon Stewart. It was indeed an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue. Never the less, Stewart held his own, Mesley did not

  2. I was disappointed with the interview for the very same reasons . I wanted to learn more about the subject of the movie and the political agenda . Mesley appeared bent on shaming Stewart. . It seemed personal and I guess I would have expected a more professional approach. Jon however handled the relentless jabbing wth skill and grace.

  3. How refreshing to read an analysis capturing my sentiment that Wendy Mesley is being promoted …in error… to a role for which she is ill suited. I would suggest she continue reading the news and work on the annoying habit she has of gasping as she fights for a new breath. I have not seen from her skilled listening, nor does she have any facility to make guests feel comfortable enough to share and disclose with the audience. Rather I see Wendy Mesley eager to pounce and it’s unflattering, rude and counterproductive to what I am hoping the interview will share. And Wendy’s plastic, aggressive smile in a serious discussion is painful to watch.

  4. I actually wrote CBC with EXACTLY these comments, though you put them forward much more eloquently. I have not received a reply from CBC and probably do not expect to. I suspect that they think Wendy Mesley is good marketing, though she is clearly far from the usual high quality of CBC interviewers. This is obviously not the first time she has conducted a dubious interview, and probably will not be the last. I was embarrassed and disappointed for the CBC AND Canada.
    Thankful very much for your posting.
    Sheldon Spier, Chemainus, BC

  5. Pingback: Rosewater too nicely scented (a review) | createdbyrcw

  6. absolutely agree with all of your observations about the interview. It was uncomfortable to watch as she just would not let the conversation flow, as you said. I kept thinking…”why is Peter Mansbridge not doing this interview?”

  7. I agree with all the commenters and with the article too. I watched that interview and cringed. I can’t imagine that he’ll ever want to be interviewed by CBC again. Between Mesley and the Jian G thing, you might as well flush the CBC down the toilet……along with the Debators, This is That and Stewart McLean.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Flora.

      As you might imagine, I’ve had a lot of traffic for this post…seems I struck a nerve that was activated by Ms Wesley.

      I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve worked at the CBC…it’s been a sad decline that I hope they can stop one day, but who knows.

      • I have LOVED the CBC…grown up with it and learned so much about the world and about our country…starting with Ideas, Morningside and shows like Dispatches. It is pathetic what’s become of it.
        I appreciate your post about Wendy Mesley’s terrible interview with Stewart…..because I don’t think any other blog or paper has really noticed. It’s nice to ‘find’ your blog too.

      • Although I agree with much of what you said, and the CBC is not as good as it used to be, I think that it still has a very long way to go to come down to its Canadian (and American) competitors in terms of investigative reporting.

      • I would agree with you, Sheldon, on its relative position. It could just be that we were all spoiled by the standards it once championed and has more recently found difficulty in maintaining.

        That being said, The National is my morning viewing (online) before I start my day for pieces like the Duncan McCue series Last Rights.

        Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation.


  8. Anybody remember Barbara Frum? No question The CBC has slid some from those glory days. I believe the only thing holding Ms. Mesley in place is the structure of the Corporation’s internal politics. The interview with Jon Stewart was embarrassing to watch. I’d love to have been able to read his mind as it progressed. He showed considerable class in his handling of the relentless attack. Even as a news reader Wendy Mesley is hard for me to watch and listen to. There are others more engaging and capable of anchoring the National – Dianna Swain for one – but I digress. Wendy Mesley’s interview of Jon Stewart is to me a reflection of the CBC’s declining standards. Thank you for your blog and the opportunity to ‘voice’ my thoughts.

    • John, thanks for contributing your thoughts.

      This post has definitely garnered more feedback than any other I have posted, which likely shows just how frustrated viewers have become.

      To its credit, the CBC still manages to produce some of the finest news essays on television and I am quite a fan of most of the panel discussions on The National. It remains my morning viewing (online) over breakfast.

      To everyone’s point, however, I too fear the network seems increasingly adrift these days and it is only some of its stalwart programming that keeps many of us diehards tuning in. Which, again, is likely why the Mesley interview hurt so much.

      Here’s hoping for a bright future!

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