Most journalism professionals agree that it is appropriate that media organizations should ban reporters from attending certain types of events in the name of objectivity and limiting perceived bias. For example, events supporting specific political candidates are typically considered out-of-bounds, unless a reporter is actually on the job, putting together a story about the event or the candidate for broadcast or publication.
But of late, media outlets are falling all over themselves to declare even non-partisan events off-limits to off-duty journos. The most recent example is the recently renamed Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," which made its biggest splash in the mainstream media when National Public Radio issued a memo saying employees attending the admittedly left-leaning rally would violate the organization's code of ethics. Many other mainstream outlets are doing the same, saying the event is political in nature, so attendance by journalists — other than those covering the event for their news organizations — could raise questions about bias on the part of the journalists or their employers. (No similar edict became public in advance of Glenn Beck's August 28 rally in DC, suggesting the news execs couldn't fathom their minions wanting to attend that event.)
I understand that news organizations don't want their journalists holding signs promoting a particular candidate or referendum question. But are these news outlets truly so confused that they object to their employees potentially holding up signs supporting sanity and reasonableness? Apart from being badly needed in all aspects of American life today — including newsrooms — sanity and reasonableness are things that real journalists endeavor to support, rather than shilling to the shrill extremes.
But let's move beyond the fact that this kind of ban is tantamount to banning journalists from attending shows at which stand-up comics make jokes about politics or current events. That alone makes it completely ludicrous.
This ban is far more damaging to the media outlets that promulgate it, because it prevents journalists from going to see shining examples of real journalism. Both Stewart and Colbert have won Peabody Awards for their television reporting — Stewart twice for coverage of elections, something the mainstream media should be trying to be better at.
Stewart and Colbert are people who despite their claims to be comedians, and despite the fact that they are on Comedy Central, are actively engaged in seeking truth, context, and insight about modern American and global affairs.
They and their staffs are well-informed, talented writers, brilliant at making their information not just palatable but actually enjoyable to consume. They are doing what the mainstream media is failing at, and has been failing at for a long time — getting people interested in public affairs.
Little wonder, then, that both men are significant threats to existing media. A Rasmussen Reports poll in 2009 found that nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 believe their shows are replacing "traditional" news outlets.
So how to mainstream media outlets respond to an opportunity to observe some of the most important journalistic figures of the early 21st century? By issuing edicts that ensure their newsgathering employees are uninformed, non-participating scribes forbidden from involvement in a world that increasingly demands the engagement of professional skeptics. This is very clearly a surrender to irrelevance, a declaration of retreat from the field of journalistic inquiry, albeit under the cover of a professed adherence to unachievable ethical standards.
If reporters are not allowed to attend gatherings of groups of people who care about an issue (or a set of issues), how are they to find out what's going on in the world?
Must they, like the public at large, be held hostage to mainstream-media reporters' skewed views of the world? Must they, like the general public, hear and read primarily whatever is contained in statements read by officials at podiums, or, for some sense of "balance," wildly inaccurate statements by people so detached from reality that they can look at a blue sky and call it red? Journalists and their corporate masters have a lot to learn from Stewart and Colbert.