Levees Not War
National Security Begins at Home

At the Intersection of Jon Stewart and Brian Williams

02/13/15

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Jersey BoysBrian Douglas Williams and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz both went to high school in New Jersey and held common, low-level jobs before working their way to the top of their respective, and interrelated, professions.

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“Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” —Jon Stewart on Brian Williams, The Daily Show, Feb. 9, 2015

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Last week we wrote a piece in defense of Brian Williams, little realizing it was probably already too late, even as other revelations of his storytelling were coming forth, and the social media pile-on was getting heavier by the minute. Then, this Tuesday, Feb. 10, we learned that not only is Williams being put on a six-month, unpaid leave by NBC management, but, even more distressing, Brian’s friend and ours, the widely beloved Jon Stewart, has announced that later this year he’ll step down from his anchor desk on The Daily Show at Comedy Central’s “World News Headquarters in New York,” the job he has held for 16 years. (“Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show”)

It seems to say something about the nature of our society and culture these days that as Jon Stewart announces his departure, a satirical comedian is very likely the most trusted source in news—at least to an entire, younger generation to whom the name Brian Williams is, maybe, vaguely familiar. As media columnist David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”

(In more sad news this week,  David Carr himself died just last night at The New York Times after hosting a Times Talks conversation at The New School in New York with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden about the new film Citizenfour, directed by Poitras. Click here for a clip of that Times Talks appearance.)

jonstewartDave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote, “For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.”

Just think about that for a minute: Cronkite and Murrow. We’d agree, it’s a fair comparison.

As Jason Zinoman of the Times wrote in “A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor”:

“The Daily Show” didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.  [emphasis added]

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Surely the status of being the most trusted man in news is one that Brian Williams wanted for himself, and it may once have been possible, but now that trust may be irretrievable. Further revelations have appeared about Williams’s whoppers, fabrications, outright lies, that make it hard to insist that he should be allowed to stay in his big chair. Even as we went to press with our piece last Friday (we learned later), The Guardian was reporting that New Orleans residents were calling into question some of Brian Williams’s tales about his time covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—some of the very coverage for which we were expressing gratitude.

We said last week, “We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.” A comment from AdHack on the cross-posting of “In Defense of Brian Williams” at Daily Kos answered that quite clearly:

It’s coming out now because Williams told his dishonest recollection of being shot down last Friday, after repeatedly being warned by NBC brass to stop it, and a bunch of military veterans called him on it, which was reported by Stars & Stripes and then picked up by other media. The question really should be: Why did it take so long for this to get out? Veterans have been trying to get out the truth for quite some time. 

Thanks to AdHack for that clarification. We have not found other sources attesting that NBC executives had told Williams to stop telling the tale about being shot down, but AdHack seems to know what he’s talking about.

Not the Only Tale-Teller with a Big Megaphone

We agree, though, with a Carla Wallach of Greenwich, Conn., the writer of a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Feb. 12:

How sad that the NBC brass couldn’t see that all the brouhaha regarding the news anchor Brian Williams had nothing to do with his work. His fudging the truth regarding the helicopter incident was nearly an act of personal vanity, which is not a rarity among celebrities. So he was not on the helicopter that was fired on, as he claimed, but in one behind it: that’s close enough to death for me. A six-month suspension is too severe. People will have forgotten about the incident in less ethan a month. I will be among those welcoming him back. 

Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTrue, it doesn’t seem fair, especially when you consider the massive lies told in recent years and decades by government officials—too numerous to mention—and that there is an entire network with “News” in its name that does nothing but lie and distort, 24/7. But NBC Nightly News is and should be held to a higher standard of integrity. (See “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” at The New Republic.)

We just hope we’ll see Brian Williams back on the job in not too long a time. And, again, the attention he helped bring to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was needed then and is needed still.

On a happier note, it’s Mardi Gras time, y’all (Tuesday, Feb. 17). Let the good times roll . . .

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Further Reading

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note” (NYT 2/11/15)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor” (NYT 2/10/15)

Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths: Brian Williams’s and Jon Stewart’s Common Ground,” by David Carr, New York Times (2/11/15)

Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents,” The Guardian (2/6/15)

NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” Stars and Stripes (2/4/15)

Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show” (NYT 2/11/15)

Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage” (NYT 2/11/15)

Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” by Nicole Hemmer, The New Republic (2/13/15)

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Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

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