By Chris Stigall
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Brian Williams wasn’t supposed to be in the entertainment business. Jon Stewart wasn’t supposed to be in the news business. Only one of them managed to pull off the greatest career evolution of all time.
On Tuesday, Comedy Central’s host of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart announced he would resign his post at the end of the year. On the same day we learned NBC News is suspending embattled “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams without pay for six months.
Which man’s absence means more to politics and the culture? It’s not even close.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit “The Daily Show” is often hilarious – yes, even when it’s skewering issues I support. Jon Stewart is extremely talented. I’ve loved watching and laughing right along with the show since the late 1990’s. We use Stewart’s jokes and guest interviews regularly on my radio show as a jumping-off point for broader discussions every week.
But I’ve spent so much time talking about him and analyzing his show – particularly since 2007 – not because he’s funny. He is. No, because he’s so much more than the jokes. He’s revolutionized the way this country thinks of our news and our politics.
And he knows it, too. His show became as much about his personal, political views as his punch lines.
It’s no secret Stewart is a liberal Democrat. He admits as much. That’s fine. Most comics are. But something happened to news and comedy in this country that truly collided around the first election of Barack Obama.
Jon Stewart – the comedian – became a trusted source for actual news, facts and truth.
There are many reasons for this. More than I have time to write and study. There are many reasons why mainstream news institutions are no longer trusted or consumed widely. In many cases brought on by their own actions. Brian Williams’ recent embarrassment notwithstanding.
But whatever the reasons – comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert now dramatically influence what many Americans think is the truth in news.
According to Gallup’s 2014 poll of “Confidence in Institutions,” television news ranked higher in confidence for those surveyed above only Congress.
In 2009, a Time Magazine online poll asked readers to vote on their most trusted source for news. Coming in on top with 44 percent was Jon Stewart. The “big three” news anchors (including Williams at the time) came in a distant second at 29 percent.
Why is this important? For some of the reasons I mentioned in my column last year, “Court Jester Journalists.”
“President Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney recently stated Jon Stewart was the “most substantive, challenging interview” the President was given in election year 2012.
There was a time not long ago when a president wouldn’t think of granting an interview to a comic. Today, he not only grants the interview, but also praises the comic for conducting it.
Jon Stewart, the man who actually wept with euphoria at Barack Obama’s victory on election night, 2008 is praised as “substantive and challenging” by the White House.
This White House praise of Stewart serves another important purpose. It tells Americans that going forward, the place to learn about President Obama and his policies are comedy shows. Trust Jon Stewart for the facts.”
But consider what happened to Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News. After being caught fabricating what appear to be multiple stories of his involvement in news events over the years – the dam broke.
How did this happen? Why did Williams feel such a need to embellish his storytelling? Very simply, he wanted to be more like Jon Stewart.
“Slow jamming” the news with Jimmy Fallon, Letterman, “The View,” Rachel Ray, “Saturday Night Live” sketches, “30 Rock” episodes – Brian Williams was becoming a very likeable entertainer.
Just like Stewart understood he was becoming a source for news, Williams knew his entertainment mojo was on the uptick. His name ID and likeability scores shot through the roof.
Likeable, funny, cute (and reads the news, too)? Viola!
The perfect cross-pollination of news and entertainment. Williams is Stewart. Stewart is Williams.
Except, Williams and NBC can’t get away with the masquerade Stewart has pulled any longer. At the end of the day, Stewart can shrug and say, “I’m just a comedian. Who cares if I get it wrong?” NBC News still has to, at a minimum, pretend they hold their journalists to a higher standard.
But we’ve already established whom audiences trust more. And it’s not the guy who’s getting punished for getting it wrong.
Today, the blurred line of news and entertainment sharpened ever-so-slightly for Brian Williams. But for Jon Stewart, the line remains as blurry as ever.
Stewart gave birth to an entirely new genre of comedy “news” shows. First, Stephen Colbert – who goes “mainstream” himself soon at the “Late Show.” While former “Daily Show” players Larry Wilmore and John Oliver carry on the tradition of the news-comedy hybrid.
Meanwhile, network news and traditional journalists are dying on the vine. Which Brian Williams ultimately recognized, but for which he overcorrected.
Writing about the Williams’ saga over the weekend, Politico Magazine’s Jack Shafer said, “Nobody is big enough to slow jam the news and broadcast the news at the same time.”
Maybe not for a journalist, but for a comedian it seems the reverse is true. Who knows? Tomorrow’s news may come with a two-drink minimum.