Proving Jon Stewart Right

Although the Daily Show has taken great delight in lampooning our political class, over the years, Jon Stewart’s most frequent targets have been the American media.

In fact, the Daily Show could be considered one longstanding reproach to an American media that focuses on celebrity and “infotainment” at the expense of what used to be called the “news of verification”–a media that repeatedly fails to provide the sort of investigative reporting on government, business and social institutions that we need in order to be informed citizens in an increasingly complex world.

To take just one example, America has recently experienced a series of highly problematic incidents in which police have killed unarmed citizens. Those incidents–several of which have been captured on the cell phones of witnesses–have led to protests and civil unrest.  Given their frequency, and the amount of discord generated, it would be reasonable to expect an investigative series separating fact from fiction and rumor: the number of people killed by police in a given period of time, the demographics of communities where such tragedies occur, perhaps even comparing the American experience to that of other Western democratic countries.

Instead of that reporting, we’ve gotten pundits and “commentators” accusing or defending police actions, based upon their particular ideological positions.

It has taken the Guardian–the excellent British newspaper that regularly offers more information about the U.S. than most American news outlets, to do the hard reporting. The Guardian has produced a database showing, month by month, the number of people killed by police, the manner of the death (gunshot, taser, etc.) and where that killing occurred.

No punditry. No spin. No hysterical accusations or indignant defenses. Just raw data. This is what happened, this is where and this is when. A basis for discussion.

People can draw very different conclusions from a given fact situation. But in the absence of those hard facts, we are left with conjecture and ideology and hyperbole. In order to have anything approaching reasoned debate about solutions to our common problems, we need to begin with verifiable facts–and we depend upon the media to provide those facts.

The First Amendment’s Freedom of the Press was a recognition of the importance of that media role. We didn’t protect the media from government interference so that reporters could parrot party lines or hype the newest “in” bar.

The Guardian is evidence that journalism is still possible. In this case, the data was clearly available–but to the best of my knowledge, no American outlet compiled it.

Perhaps American media should focus less on things like Kim Kardashian’s ass and more on that quaint thing called actual news.

I’m sure Jon Stewart wouldn’t mind.