Why Jon Stewart is the anti-Brian Williams

Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.
Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Two high-profile departures from the hot celebrity glare of television were announced late Tuesday. One of those leaving is among the most respected people in media. The other is a charlatan.

The object of our respect, of course, is Jon Stewart, who announced he’ll be retiring from “The Daily Show” later this year. A satirist of the highest order, Stewart has been our truth-teller-in-chief since 1999. The charlatan, needless to say, is Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months without pay as anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News.” It’s hard to imagine he’ll be back.

The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate events has not gone unnoticed. A six-column headline on the front of today’s New York Times reads “Williams Suspended, at Low Point in His Career; Stewart to Depart at High Point.” The departures also say a lot about our changing perspectives on journalism and the people who bring it to us. As I (and many others) noted when Williams first got into trouble last week over his lies about coming under fire in Iraq, there was a time when Walter Cronkite — a network anchor — was considered “the most trusted man in America.”

Today I would argue that no man or woman can lay claim to being the most trusted. The culture is too fractured. Andy Warhol’s old dictum has long since been updated to “On the Web, we will all be famous to 15 people.” Stewart, though, may be the most trusted person in the media for a certain subset that I would define as deeply interested in the news, though not necessarily hyper-informed; urban; and liberal, but skeptical of politicians regardless of ideology. He is the most vital media critic of our time, a worthy successor to A.J. Liebling and Ben Bagdikian.

Stewart is also the ideal media commentator for the Internet age. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I’ve rarely sat down at 11 p.m. to watch “The Daily Show.” I’m far more likely to catch clips on YouTube or watch bits and pieces of previous episodes through my cable provider’s on-demand offerings.

Though Stewart, 52, and Williams, 55, are nearly the same age, they seem to be from completely different generations, with Williams representing the outmoded sit-down-and-let-us-tell-you-what’s-important paradigm. Cronkite himself was said to be uncomfortable with his signoff (“And that’s the way it is”) because he knew it wasn’t true. We can only guess what Williams believes to be true. Which brings me to another important difference between Jon Stewart and Brian Williams. At a time when we have become increasingly uncomfortable with old-fashioned notions about objectivity, many media observers have called for a shift to transparency.

Stewart is utterly transparent — we know what he believes and what perspective he brings to his commentary. Williams tried to project the sort of authority that’s rooted in objectivity. It worked, more or less, until it didn’t. (An aside about objectivity. Straight news, as opposed to analysis or opinion, ought to be offered up with fairness and neutrality. Unfortunately, “objectivity” has all too often come to mean something else — a quest for balance at all costs, even the truth. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan got at this the other day with a piece on “false balance.”)

Stewart is unique, and we’ll still have him for the rest of 2015. I’d like to think the Daily Show franchise is safe. Some of the names people were floating on social media Tuesday, such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, could prove to be worthy successors.

As for Williams, I can’t imagine anyone expects him to resume anchoring duties after such a severe punishment. Mostly likely negotiations on the terms of his departure are already under way. For all the talk about the network nightly news having slipped into obsolescence, it’s still the closest thing we have to a mass medium, watched by more than 20 million people. A new anchor will be named and life will go on as before, at least for a few more years. Someday, though, it will end. And the Brian Williams episode will be looked back on as a signal moment in its demise.

Off-duty reporters, political rallies and NPR

What does it mean to “participate” in a rally? It’s a question I’m asking myself after reading a memo from NPR management (via Romenesko) warning journalists to stay away from the Oct. 30 rallies being organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo, from senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss, includes this:

NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John [sic] Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.

Most of Weiss’ admonitions are a matter of common sense. Journalists should not put bumper stickers on their cars, donate money to political candidates or do anything else that would amount to political involvement. But if I were an off-duty NPR reporter, I’d be offended at being ordered not to attend a rally, whether it be Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” event or Glenn Beck’s recent gathering.

Good journalists want to check things out whether they’re working or not. There’s a proper role for a reporter on a busman’s holiday, and it neither requires staying home nor involves waving fists and posters while chanting along with the crowd.

It’s called attending, observing, learning.

Reflections on the state of media criticism

Hayes_20091222I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.

The essay is, in part, a review of a new book by the media scholar Arthur Hayes called “Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate: Media Watchdogs in America.” Hayes deliberately eschews journalistic practitioners of media criticism such as Jack Shafer, Howard Kurtz, David Carr, Eric Alterman and Liebling himself in favor of political activists. (The cover aside, Stephen Colbert and even Jon Stewart receive surprisingly little mention.)

Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:

At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

Hope you’ll take a look.

NewsTrust J-hunt: The final five

My stint as host of NewsTrust’s journalism topic area comes to an end today. Here are five stories I submitted this morning:

I could write an entire post on the last item, but I’ll just say this: Stewart is perhaps the best and most important media critic we’ve had since A.J. Liebling.

His dissection of CNBC’s Jim Cramer last night — as well as his two eight-minute pieces lampooning the so-called experts of CNBC (here and here) — will have, I predict, a major and well-deserved negative effect on the network.