Brian Williams, Jon Stewart and our attitude toward news reporting

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Last week was a tough week for journalism: In just the two least-publicized news stories, veteran reporter Bob Simon was killed in a car crash in Manhattan and New York Times media columnist David Carr died of complications from lung cancer.

But undoubtedly, the most talked-about stories did not involve fatalities: Jon Stewart announced his upcoming resignation from "The Daily Show," and Brian Williams was put on a potentially career-ending hiatus from "NBC Nightly News" after allegations he lied about his role in a skirmish in Iraq.

I am fascinated by the simultaneity of these last two events, and I wonder if they don't bring to the fore a certain paradox in our attitude toward news reporting.

First of all, many people have compared Brian Williams more or less unfavorably to the gold standard of trustworthiness set by the legendary Walter Cronkite. They point out a decidedly contemporary attribute of Williams': The most biting critiques call it self-aggrandizement, while the most neutral ones simply point out that Williams "wanted to both report and entertain." Indeed, Williams frequently appeared on late-night television and "30 Rock," and he apparently once lobbied to replace Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."

On the other hand, the Internet has been almost universal in its grief over the departure of precisely such a television celebrity as it accuses Williams of aspiring to become -- even as the truism behind people's admiration for Jon Stewart is that he managed to become one of the most respected "real newscasters" working today.

I cannot help but feel that the adulation we've given to Stewart -- which has also fueled the rise of similarly snarky quasi-mainstream entertainer-journalists across the political spectrum, from MSNBC to Fox News -- is at least partly responsible for agitating Williams' ego. If he desired to become a celebrity, if he embellished tales with lurid false memories, it is surely because his audience was unrelenting in its demand for outsized entertainment, even in the newsroom.

Personally, I have little fondness for Stewart's comedic shtick: Show a clip of a Republican saying something silly; do an exaggerated double-take with an incredulous sound effect; recover; say, "But at least he didn't say XYZ"; show a clip of the Republican saying precisely XYZ; and then cut back to Stewart, who this time reacts with bleeped-out profanity, fist-banging histrionics, or both.

The real genius on Stewart's show belongs to his researchers, who are capable of discovering the most incisive documentary evidence of people saying things they later flatly contradict or deny having said. Never mind that these little clips are always quoted out of context: We readily ignore the responsibility of interpreting and contextualizing truth claims whenever it is possible to rely, instead, on "just the facts." Stewart can then use these "gotcha" clips to give his ample personal commentary a veneer of objectivity.

Media outlets suffering from the transition to less lucrative and faster-paced electronic formats famously struggle to afford specialized researchers; on the other hand, the advent of the Internet also means that "facts" are readily available to anyone with time to look. Wikipedia, for instance, doesn't need a paid staff to verify its accuracy; it only needs crowd-sourcing. A similar phenomenon is involved in Williams' downfall. He is actually known for tenacious fact-checking, but it took only a few vigilant viewers to find the smoking gun of his inaccuracies.

The outline of Williams' story is broadly true, and his mistake is basically understandable. It can be explained by the fog of war and post-traumatic stress, the chaos of the newsroom and the chaos of personal memory, as much as by narcissism.

Yet we are a profoundly unforgiving society eager to displace the burden of our own human fallibility onto a scapegoat. We are holding Williams to a standard of truth that none of us really believes in so much as we believe in the cache of comedy -- a comedy that, so long as we laugh along with the satirist, reassures us that we are among the enlightened ones and not among the idiots.

In this light, we must view Stewart as the heir not of any news figure, but of a satirical tradition. His show was the "Seinfeld" of my generation, a free-wheeling ritual of sarcasm that tried to lampoon everyone equally as though thorough-going cynicism were a virtue. Like "The Daily Show," "Seinfeld" didn't just mock a self-centered culture; it created one by allowing us all to identify with the narcissistic yet ultimately "normal" Jerry, next to whom everyone else in the world fell into some sort of unsavory category: the soft-talkers, the close-talkers, the double-dippers, etc.

Interestingly, "Seinfeld" creator Larry David's next television project was "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which I found far more benevolent because there it was Larry who was the loser, and everyone else around him, for all their foibles, was essentially normal. Analogously, "The Colbert Report" was a more benign (and funnier) spinoff of "The Daily Show" because although Stephen Colbert's character represented a particular form of American political discourse, the host's irony was essentially self-deprecating. He was the court jester, and he related to his guests with a wink and a nod rather than with aggression and disdain.

I don't know why I feel compelled to defend Brian Williams. Perhaps it is the fact that what little writing I have done recently has exposed me to the vulnerability faced by public intellectuals, to the complexities of the theater of politics, and, in the end, to the profound inadequacy of all words.

On the other hand, I know I feel compelled to criticize Jon Stewart precisely because he threatens my deep antipathy toward harshness -- threatens my conviction that sarcasm can be as enervating as it is mobilizing, as obfuscating as it is enlightening, and that in the end, even on TV, it is better to be loving and kind. 

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