Stewart's send-up of CNN: surprisingly unfair

Here’s something you might have missed in all the talk about Iran’s “Twitter Revolution”: it’s totally mockable!

Indeed. During his segment on “IranDecision2009”—a play on The Daily Show’s “Indecision” election series—last night, Jon Stewart briefly described the unrest in Iran (framing the protests as a conflict between supporters of Mahmoud “I’m-a-dick-in-a-jad” and “the guy who looks like the only podiatrist in the city who takes my insurance”). The anchor then noted: “News reports on these incredible events have been spotty mainly because news organizations have no idea what the hell is going on there.”

Which, you know, fair enough. Stories about the Iran situation are certainly hampered by opacity, some admirable and often quite heroic attempts at shoe-leather reporting notwithstanding. And Stewart is, in addition to everything else, a media critic: not only is it fair for him to be reporting on the media’s shortcomings in covering the Iran situation; we’d hope he would do so.

We’d hope he’d do it, though, in a vaguely nuanced—or, at the very least, vaguely fair—way. Not in the way he did last night—a way that consisted, basically, of the comedian broadly mocking CNN for using Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms in its reporting in the first place. “We’re looking at Facebook…we’re looking at Twitter…we’re looking at all the social networking sites, to bring in that material,” CNN reporter David Mattingly, starring in one of The Daily Show’s ironic news-clip montages, announced as he walked through the CNN newsroom—to the chuckles of The Daily Show’s live audience.

Stewart’s CNN-channeling verdict? “So we’re getting news on the possible Iranian revolution…and also reconnecting with high school friends.”

Funny (kinda), but with the government crackdown on media—foreign media, in particular—isn’t it admirable that the network cared enough about getting the story to its viewers to air information that wasn’t proprietary? Sure, maybe the network’s Facebook-happy ways were an (over)reaction to #CNNFail-gate…regardless, I’d rather that they be reporting what’s going on on Facebook and Twitter than waiting for their on-the-ground reporters to be able to get back out on the streets and do more traditional reporting.

“Whether it’s Christiane Amanpour, her producers…and sound techs getting tear-gassed while filing their reports from Tehran or whether it’s our i-Reporters sending us video and stills from the scene or people on Twitter or people on Facebook or people on Myspace,” CNN’s resident Twitterphile, Rick Sanchez, noted in his defense of CNN’s early Iran coverage on Monday, “the fact is that news gathering, as we long have discovered on this particular show, is becoming a collective pursuit. And we welcome that.” The Twittertastic kerfuffle surrounding Sanchez yesterday—not to mention his self-promotional mention of “this particular show”—don’t change the accuracy of his assessment: the demarcation that used to divide new media from old—the thick wall dividing social networking platforms from other reportorial tools—simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Except, apparently, in the strange cosmology of The Daily Show. The worst moment of last night’s segment, to my mind, came when Stewart mocked CNN’s attempts to warn its audiences of the difficulty of verifying information gleaned from social networking platforms—its new “UNVERIFIED MATERIAL” badge, in particular. (Mattingly, via the Ironic Clip Montage: “We cannot verify readily some of this material that we’re going to show you.” Stewart: “And that is different from what you normally do…how…?”)

Now, sure, there’s a hint of passive-aggressive self-promotion in CNN’s ‘Beware: Unverified Information Ahead!’ designation—normally, we verify absolutely everything is certainly one obvious implication of the warning—but, still: shouldn’t we appreciate the network’s desire to warn its audiences that the information it’s airing may not be accurate? Isn’t the caveat viewer approach a pretty fair compromise between speed and accuracy in the normally rather nuanced-challenged environment that is a cable news segment?

I’d say it is. So I’d also say that Stewart’s broad-brush treatment of CNN amounted to not only a rare misstep for The Daily Show’s normally trenchant media criticism, but also a missed opportunity. Stewart, last night, could have offered a substantial criticism of CNN’s—not to mention the other networks’—coverage of the Iran protests. He could have been a voice for resistance against histrionic treatments of Twitter—melodramatic caricatures rather than nuanced assessments. Instead, the anchor turned himself into a caricature: he fashioned himself as the crotchety Luddite who opposes new media platforms not on their merits, but because they’re new. As someone who failed to account for Iran’s exceedingly challenging reportorial context in his broad criticism of CNN. Instead, what was Stewart’s detailed, nuanced, and eminently fair conclusion about the network’s attempts to cover the Iran protests? “CNN blows.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.