Is it news? A comedy bit? Or an ad?

[15 June 2009]

By Julie Hinds

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Perhaps I need new contact lenses, because there’s been some blurring of the lines recently between news, politics, comedy and advertising that’s making my head swim.

I noticed it when Conan O’Brien showed a bit taped for “The Tonight Show” that featured NBC News anchor Brian Williams and President Barack Obama.

In it, Williams (whose prime-time special “Inside the Obama White House” aired last week) asked the president about his Middle East trip coinciding with O’Brien’s first week as the new “Tonight Show” host.

With a straight face, Obama said he thinks O’Brien will do an outstanding job and that there’d been talks in the Oval Office about “how to manage this transition between Leno and Conan.” He added that there’d be no bailout if O’Brien screws it up.

Things got fuzzy a second time when I read that Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” was guest-editing the issue of Newsweek that hit newsstands Monday.

The magazine, which just underwent a major redesign, is coping with the same economic woes plaguing the rest of the news media. Inviting Colbert, who also was broadcasting four shows from Iraq this week, to be the first guest editor in Newsweek’s history is a way to generate buzz and maybe steal back a little of the Web’s thunder.

Usually, I’m all for such cross-promotion. I like knowing that my network anchors and commanders-in-chief have a sense of humor and appreciate popular culture. And I admire a powerful news outlet that is willing to have a little fun.

But at the risk of being a Debbie Downer, it’s starting to seem as if there’s too much infotainment lately, or politicomedy, or journalismarketing, or whatever the hybrid word might be.

I don’t particularly want the leader of the free world to become a frequent participant in late-night TV skits, especially when the economy is in such dire shape. I’m not sure news anchors should be using their limited time with presidents on network promos or jokes, even if they are amusing.

And I feel sad that Newsweek needs gimmicks like celebrity guest editors in order to get attention. I yearn for the days when hard-news reporting and thoughtful analysis were enough to drive up a news magazine’s circulation.

Did I mention that Joe Scarborough’s engaging morning talkfest on MSNBC has a new sponsorship deal with Starbucks? The on-air logo for “Morning Joe” now includes the words “brewed by Starbucks.” The New York Times called it “the closest integration between an advertiser and a national news program in recent memory.”

The blurriness continues. The old ways are shifting. But, just to be clear, this message wasn’t brought to you by ShamWow.

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