The media loves a scandal, and Brian Williams has delivered. After misleading the public about an incident involving his coverage of the Iraq War in 2003, the longtime host of NBC Nightly News has been suspended for six months without pay.
Williams’ credibility is being called into question, as more accusations have surfaced. Did he exaggerate his experiences while reporting on Hurricane Katrina? What about when he was in Israel back in 2007? And the New York Post wants to know, was Williams really robbed at gunpoint as a teenager in front of a church in a small town in New Jersey while selling Christmas trees from the back of his truck? The world may never know. Like most scandals, this one will come and go in time, likely to be replaced by which leave-in conditioner the youngest Kardashian sister is using now.
Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show was announced around the same time that Williams came under fire (pun intended). After hosting The Daily Show for 17 years, I am sad that Stewart is stepping down, but wish him all the best. As a huge fan, I would be remiss not to point out the perfect timing of these two stories.
What’s the difference between Williams and Stewart? Well, for starters, one hosts a show that millions of Americans tune into every night, eager to hear the day’s news from a no-nonsense, legitimate “journalist.” The other one works for NBC.
Joking aside, there are some big questions here. For example, how is it that a comedian and self-described purveyor of “fake news” has become one of the most credible voices in today’s media? It’s the result of a 24-hour news cycle that has been repeatedly shooting itself in the foot for the past decade. Williams distorting the news is just the latest in an all too familiar pattern.
The truth is, when it comes to telling the news, the line between fact and fabrication has been blurry for quite some time. Whether he was on air doing the news or simply speaking in an interview, Williams has a responsibility as a reporter to be truthful. As do the countless anchors, pundits, analysts, and personalities that dominate the cable news cycle.
Back in 2004, Stewart made a guest appearance on the popular CNN show, Crossfire, a program that typically featured two guests with opposing views duke it out on the air with all the drama cable has to offer. But Stewart made his famous appearance solo, and made one simple request of the show’s co-hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. “Stop hurting America. And come work for us… the people.” Stewart said. “How do you pay?” asked Carlson. “The people?” replied Stewart. “Not well.”
That’s it. Humorous and witty, passionate and polite, Stewart’s comedy belies the tragedy that he is famously adept at mocking. Williams admitting that he sensationalized the news is just a part of a pattern that Stewart has been trying to show us for so long. He might have been the only guest on Crossfire that day, but Stewart faced an opponent nonetheless.
He pointed out what CNN, FOX News, MSNBC just can’t seem to understand. The methods that these networks employ to to tell the news is wholly self-serving. Loud anchors, louder guests, pundits clamoring for the last word before commercial—all of these things make for great theatre and higher ratings, but not news. TV personalities who sensationalize the news serve the politicians and the corporations. Not the people, as the press should.
Carlson asked Stewart, “How much will I profit from this?” According to Stewart, the people don’t pay a whole lot. But if profitability comes at the cost of credibility, well, that’s a price the media—and Williams—seem willing to pay.
Before we move on from this story, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture. That’s what Stewart is so good at doing. If the New York Post wants to find out what happened to Williams and his Christmas tree business in the 70’s, that’s their prerogative. But I suggest we don’t let ourselves get lost in the minutia. Rather, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from this incident, and how we can better inform ourselves as a society.