Whew, well that all happened fast.
In the span of a week, one of America’s most famous newscasters was suspended without pay after mixing up his versions of reality, America’s most famous fake newscaster MORE trusted than any of America’s actual newscasters announced his abdication, and one of America’s preeminent media experts died suddenly and unexpectedly.
These men were, of course, Brian Williams, Jon Stewart, and David Carr. In this moment of introspection following these changes, there’s an opportunity to talk about the nature of news consumption, the morphing profession of journalism, and the import of the fourth estate in the Internet age. An opportunity, of course, we all have proceeded to ignore in favor of this and this.
Media itself is at a crossroads and in a strange way, these three guys exemplify the state of journalism, what the nature of celebrity is, and how our roles in society are decided. In a weird way, these three men spent the last week discussing each others roles, as well.
Williams’ problem is best summed up as role confusion: a journalist who becomes the “face” of news forgetting the second part and just working on the face portion. Case in point, changing details of combat reporting to make yourself seem more badass. I won’t dwell on Williams because, honestly, the firestorm that erupted shares the shit out of me as an up-and-coming journalist. It’s a reminder the standard those in the profession are held to, often fairly but, in this case, perhaps a bit unfairly.
There’s no justifying Williams mistake, but the idea that a journalist could forget the difference between a factual news story involving real people and a parlor story you tell to your buddies at the bar is frightening. What gets me is that Williams is being publicly humiliated despite everything else he has done. Ascending to one of the highest news anchor positions in American television proved to be just that at the end – an anchor that dragged Williams into the abyss. His power and influence didn’t protect him. Indeed, they preceded his fall. It’s a warning: being a journalist and a celebrity is dangerous. Stewart, as usual, said it best.
The irony here is that Stewart was a celebrity who accidentally became a newscaster. He has has many times been frustrated by the trust placed in him and his Daily Show writers for their news, as he has consistently said being funny in the point of the show and they are not professional journalists. You wouldn’t know that given the Internet shockwave that followed Stewart’s retirement announcement. He even lampshaded it himself the next night, asking the audience “Did I die? Cause it feels like I died.”
In fairness, it kind of is like death in an end-of-an-era kind of way. Colbert has moved on. Larry Wilmore and John Oliver have their shows now. He created a dynasty that is not going away thankfully. But this wound is fresh and the idea of a future where liberal commenting is left to Bill Maher is too horrific to consider.
In an era where the media is everywhere and being fast beats being right, the ultimate irony is the sheer lack of options for getting reliable news anymore. The Daily Show became what it mocked, or rather, it became what it mocked was actually supposed to be; they were the 21st Century muckrakers, calling out the institutional and structural issues of our corporations, our politicians, and our government. The cultural effect cannot be overstated.
Comedy and satire have long been one of the best forms of protest and social critique. Indeed, most of my heroes who were comedians, including George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Louis CK, didn’t consider themselves comedians per se; they were comedy writers who performed their material. Which, when you think about it, is a distinction that can change one’s definition about what a comedian does and the true import of that role in society.
This is all to underline what I think was the key to Stewart and his legacy and what separates him from another long-running host like Maher and his successors: the enduring sense of humility and idealism. See, Stewart was never given to dwelling in the shit-stained corridors he reported on (indeed, his “restless” comment could be theorized to indicate his weariness at having to look at it on a daily basis). He held those accountable, but didn’t despair. He held himself accountable, but let the world know he was a human being with the same issues and tendency for mistakes and foibles that we all have. That was Jon’s gift: his effortless empathy.
David Carr gave a fascinating quote in 2013 that really encapsulates the import of traditional news in a democratic society and why newspapers, and the increasing trend away from them, is detrimental to the health of American culture (Check more great Carr quotes here).
“The hierarchy of the newspaper — when somebody takes six of those stories and puts them on the front, illustrates them, plays them over section fronts — that architecture for me in a digital age is important. I view it as a daily magazine, a prism on what took place yesterday, and I miss it. We live in an age where there is a firehose of information and there is no hierarchy of what is important and what is not.” — 2013 interview with the Vancouver Sun
I’ve been a fan of Carr’s writing since I was introduced to him in my OU J101 class upon viewing the documentary Page One. Since then, the Media Equation, his highly-respected weekly column in The New York Times has presented a lot of what made The Daily Show excellent: the safe biting self-awareness, the same bruised idealism. Carr was not shy about sharing his past struggles with drug and domestic abuse. His final Media Equation column, published Feb. 11, focused also on the dichotomy between Stewart and Williams, their background. That’s partly what inspired me to write this.
Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news. And Mr. Williams will find his way back to his desk only if he figures out a way to regain the trust he has squandered. Mr. Williams is now all but locked in his own home — he might as well have an ankle monitor on. There is no playbook on how to come back from such a fall. Stephen B. Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, said everyone deserved a second chance. I very much agree. I just can’t figure out how that second chance comes at NBC. What is the path to that? At what point will the tabloids and blogs take their boot off his neck and allow him to go to the gym, take a walk, have dinner with friends, let alone begin to resume a kind of active rehabilitation — whatever that looks like — in the public eye? – David Carr on Jon Stewart’s retirement and Brian Williams’ scandal
It’s these men who pave the way for examination and for reflections. Americans, hell even all human beings, don’t like to be reflective. We might not like what we see. But until our newsmen are as honest as our comedians and our media isn’t beholden to the most basic common denominators of what the audience thinks it wants, we will never have a media that gives the audience what it needs.