Jon Stewart to exit, and that overshadows the Brian Williams news
It isn’t often that worlds collide with such tweet-sweet poetry as happened Tuesday with the consecutive announcements of Jon Stewart’s retirement from “The Daily Show” and Brian Williams’ six-month suspension from “NBC Nightly News.”
One can only hope that not too many talking heads explode with the cross-market hype because if ever there was a moment for television news to take a deep breath and collect itself, this would be it.
Let me timeline it for you: Tuesday afternoon, news came of a weekend meeting between the truth-challenged Williams and NBC Universal’s CEO. Expectations for an announcement were high, lists of possible replacements compiled. Then, even as the portion of the world that cares tuned into social media and/or the east coast airing of “The Nightly News” to learn Williams’ fate, Twitter began heating up with reports that Stewart had “let slip” to his live studio audience that he was preparing exit plans of his own. A release from Comedy Central quickly followed confirming that Stewart would leave “The Daily Show” sometime this year.
FULL COVERAGE: Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ and beyond
Within minutes, many commentators (including this one) noted that this announcement was a much bigger deal than NBC’s decision because Stewart has had a far larger impact on television news than Williams ever would.
Also, wasn’t it funny that in his most recent show Stewart had first mocked Williams before calling out the media for paying more attention to the anchor’s tall tales out of Iraq than they had when reporting our reasons for invading it. Never mind that Williams was a frequent “Daily Show” guest, a fact that many commentators (including this one) believed either exacerbated or proved Williams preference of celebrity over journalism.
Then, while we were all chuckling over our smartphones and scrambling to figure out if life without Stewart was even worth living, bam: NBC announced Williams’ six-month suspension without pay.
It was such a neat and masterful bit of news-cycle interference that it’s difficult not to believe it wasn’t choreographed.
Say, what is Stephen Colbert up to these days? And does it involve a black-ops room?
The Williams deal seems as good an outcome as anyone (especially Williams) could have hoped for. Five million bucks is more than the average journalist will earn in a lifetime, but it is only half of a reported $10 million-plus salary. And while the suspension may wind up being a termination, it might not. (Memo to Williams: Take these six months and practice keeping your yap shut. No talk-show appearances, no confessions to Oprah, no remorseful op-eds or exile tweeting from the family manse/local Starbucks/Tibetan prayer cave. Just zip it for a while.)
And the truth (as opposed to the truthiness) remains that Stewart’s imminent departure, especially so close on the heels of Colbert’s, does indeed have a much more significant impact on how millions of Americans get and evaluate the news, than does the suspension of Williams, or indeed any actual journalist.
Stewart and his writers didn’t re-invent the news — “The Daily Show” responded rather than reported — so much as they re-invigorated it. The mockery of television coverage and anchors is as old as the genre itself, with many iconic milestones, from “Network” to “Saturday Night Live’s” star-generation “Weekend Update” sequence.
But Stewart, and later Colbert, took on the news in real time, calling specific reporting and punditry into question, refuting the traditional news gatherers, especially on Fox News. “The Daily Show” was, and is, funny, smart and informed. Not since the heyday of “All the President’s Men” (and I fear I am referring to the film more than the book) was being a news junkie considered so cool.
To excoriate the news, you actually have to pay attention to it. More than that, you have to know enough to spot the spin.
When polls revealed that more young people got their news from Comedy Central than any of the networks or newspapers, many expressed horror and disdain while journalists defensively pointed out that the humor was only possible because the reporting was being done by someone else.
True, but “The Daily Show” serves as an edgy, quotable PSA for journalism, reminding everyone that the news matters, especially for the youth demographic.”
And as “The Daily Show” grew in popularity and influence, Stewart found himself in a role that looked remarkably like “journalist,” conducting the sort of high-caliber in-depth interviews traditionally reserved for actual reporters (or, perhaps during an election year, Jay Leno.)
In fact, Stewart blurred the line between entertainer and journalist much more than Williams ever did. The comedian, however, was lauded not punished because he understood what friend-of-the-show Williams did not: An entertainer who moonlights as a journalist has far more professional flexibility than a journalist moonlighting as an entertainer.
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