Learning the Wrong Lessons from The Daily Show

Once more into the “Mad Bitch” breech

Now that The Washington Post has owned up to pulling Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza’s “Mad Bitch” video, and writers at liberal-leaning publications are pushing back at some of the criticism that Milbank and Cillizza have received, we’re probably approaching the point where there’s not much left to be said about this particular story. Still, the episode has taught a few lessons worth repeating—one of which is that, as Nick Baumann of Mother Jones put it, “Web Video Isn’t Easy.” Or, while producing video itself may be as easy as two dudes and a Web cam, producing good video is hard, painstaking and time-consuming—just like most good journalism. It is most definitely not a quick, simple way to fill your Web site with quality material.

That fact creates something of a problem for legacy media institutions like the Post, which are shedding resources just as they struggle to meet audience demand for content in new media they don’t really understand. That dilemma, in turn, yields material like the “Mouthpiece Theater” series—uninspired, tossed-off productions that use up time, talent and money that might have been directed elsewhere, but don’t draw enough resources to be of much value themselves. Leave aside the Clinton joke for the moment—what, exactly, did the video add to Milbank’s similarly lackluster column that warranted its existence? Given the straits the newspaper industry is in, that question—Is this the best use of our limited resources?—has to be taken seriously.

Andy Cobb, the creator of the parody Post video that so skillfully lampooned the original, put his finger on the paper’s misguided digital adventures (click on “more info”): “[T]his seems to be the new WaPo online model: web video commentary that’s kind of Colbert/Daily Show-ish. Just without the writing, delivery, production values, insights, comic point-of-view, guests, or jokes. But otherwise, it’s pretty much the same deal.” In fact, papers like the Post sometimes seem to have missed the point of Jon Stewart’s humor entirely. The serious message behind Stewart’s show—as he told a pair of former CNN hosts in a very unfunny moment—is that political journalists need to do better work (while, yes, dropping some of their staid habits). It is not, “Hey, Jon Stewart is popular and has a great job! Let’s all try to be more like him!”

We don’t need knock-off Jon Stewarts, and we don’t need to see the Post’s belated training exercises in multimedia splashed all over its home page. What we do need are journalists who produce aggressive, smart, truth-telling, and yes, even funny work in every medium—you know, like what we’ve gotten from Dana Milbank before. With less time wasted on weak video bits, we’ll be more likely to get it again.

Update, 3:08 p.m.: The Post has killed the “Mouthpiece Theater” series, with the agreement of Cillizza and Milbank, Howie Kurtz reports. At his blog The Fix, Cillizza has a thoughtful post explaining why the series was attempted, reflecting on where it went wrong, and insisting—correctly—that reporters need to present their work in new platforms.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.