Among the hacks who staff our factories of conventional wisdom, evidence abounds that we are living in a golden age of news coverage, in whatever shape it takes. Jon Stewart, beloved host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, as the “most trusted man in America”, who has recently announced he will leave the show later this year after more than 15 years behind the desk. During that time, I believe Stewart has assumed the role of a secular saint, whose nightly “shtick” restores sanity to a world gone mad.
Fans will find this assessment offensive. Stewart, they will argue, is a comedian, offering late-night entertainment in the vein of David Letterman or Jay Leno, but with a topical twist. To expect him to do anything more than make us laugh is unfair. Besides, Stewart does play a vital civic role – as a dependable news source for their mostly young viewers, and even a watchdog against media hype and political hypocrisy.
Reporter Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times summed up Stewart best in a 2008 profile. “Mr. Stewart describes his job as ‘throwing spitballs’ from the back of the room,” she wrote. “Still, he and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day… in ways that straight news programs cannot- speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful ‘looniness’ to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious.” He is someone who, both in the name of comedy and in fact, decency, has never shied away from taking a controversial stand.
A hero? A cultural, factual, whimsical wonder man? Perhaps, though not in the same vein as another senior American newsman recently – and no, not him, I’ll get onto him soon enough. I’m referring to the late, great Bob Simon. Simon was the last of a rare breed, a foreign correspondent who wasn’t just at the heart of nearly every major continental story of the later part of the 20th Century, but was the heart on many occasions.
In a career spanning five decades, the 73-year-old covered many war zones from Vietnam to the former Yugoslavia. Here was a man, who, at the end of his stint in Saigon in the 1970s, was on one of the last helicopters out of the city, according to CBS, the network he loyally served. During the opening days of the Gulf War in 1991, Simon and his team were captured by Iraqi forces, and spent 40 days in an Iraqi prison, most of it in solitary confinement. Simon later said that it was a “careless mistake” for him and his crew to have even crossed the border.
He was a humble “hack”, if ever there was one. It was this grounded nature, ironic really for someone who spent so long abroad, that won him numerous awards, including 27 Emmys, for his reporting and regularly appeared on the network’s flagship programme “60 Minutes”. Tragically, he died on home soil, killed in a car accident in New York on February 11th. At his memorial service, other journalists and friends recalled Simon’s humour and quiet courage, particularly when reporting from danger zones overseas. He was a journalist, and more importantly, a friend many will miss.
“Was” is quite appropriate then in addressing him, the elephant in the room, in the sense that Brian Williams was a journalist also. No, he isn’t dead, but his career effectively is. Few will miss him. And good riddance in my opinion. He was, for many, “The Face of News” in America. Now, he is just two-faced. On the same day of both Stewart’s departure and Simon’s death, it was announced that Williams had been suspended by his employer, NBC, after he admitted giving a misleading account of coming under fire in Iraq. Instead, he found himself under fire from his bosses, and the very industry he has served for so long, the media.
It is tough to feel bad for Williams. He knows the game is rigged. NBC has never been shy about promoting the Brian Williams brand until it all turned into a hot mess. It is not about remembering or forgetting or misremembering or exaggerating or lying. It is about the $200 million in ad revenues it has been reported that NBC makes from the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. The oddest twist of all is that until the fateful newscast two weeks ago, Williams’ version of events has remained remarkably consistent through the years. One might expect that from an individual who is trained and experienced in the art of accurate recall, whose career depends on it.
I would hope that all the newsrooms, instead of gloating about what’s happened over at NBC News take a hard look at themselves, and ask themselves, ‘Are their anchors and their correspondents covering the story or are they trying to be part of the story?’ Because I think that’s the fundamental weakness that underlies this. Jon Stewart is not Brian Williams. He is not even Jon Stewart. He is playing a democratised character for his show. But at the same time, he’s as comfortable on the corporate plantation as any of the buffoons he delights in humiliating.
Stewart can score easy points by playing the humble populist. But he is smarter, and quicker, and a damn sight more honest than the real face of the news media. Bob Simon was real, and covered real, everyday life for thousands of innocents caught up in conflict, crisis or despair, often putting his own safety on the line in bringing the truth to the American public, not lies and shame as the multi-millionaire Williams has. Both Stewart and Simon are legends in their own right. Williams seemed more content on reporting legends about himself.
There is, for once, some good news though. While Simon will be fondly remembered for his work, and rightly so, Stewart will at least have enough new material for a while. At Brian Williams’ expense. The golden age of news coverage marches on!