How Jon Stewart And Brian Williams Exemplify The Evolving Role Of News Anchor
In the world of a compressed news cycle, where we get our news almost immediately through electronic media, the practice of sitting down and hearing the stories from a news anchor still means something as a communal social experience.
What happened this week to two long-standing anchormen, NBC’s Brian Williams and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, will have measurable effects on news media and how those of us involved relate to you, the consumer.
Brian Williams, news editor and anchorman of "NBC’s Nightly News," has been suspended without pay for six months as a result of repeated embellishment of stories that undermine his credibility and suggest he’s colored outside the lines of his traditional role.
Jon Stewart, a comedian who became the most trusted name in news with his nightly position on the satirical news show, will step aside at some point this year.
There is a chance we’ll have more than a few weeknights without either on television in the near future.
Brian Williams, The Entertaining Informer
Brian Williams grew up in Cold War America as a Baby Boomer. Back then, there were only three networks and each one had the national news every night.
He admittedly grew up a Walter Cronkite follower. Cronkite was the voice and visage who dominated the CBS airwaves for 19 years.
As the nation evolved from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite narrated the changes every night as the most-watched newscast in the nation, ending every broadcast with, “And that’s the way it was.”
From Vietnam to Watergate, JFK to Iran’s hostage crisis, the Beatles to Van Halen, Uncle Walter told Americans what happened, and they took his word at face value without any snide remarks or questioning.
Brian Williams is the longest-tenured anchor of the current crop, the first to supplant a member of the Rather-Jennings-Brokaw triumvirate that took over in the 80s and took America into the 21st century.
Tom Brokaw served at the anchor desk from 1982 to 2004 on NBC.
He was the Midwestern son with the authoritative voice who went up every night against CBS’ grizzled veteran from Texas, Dan Rather, and ABC’s erudite Canadian Peter Jennings.
Jennings dominated the ratings wars consistently over his rivals. He had an easy demeanor, slick sense of humor and his broadcasts felt like a luxury car without being stuffy or patronizing to the viewers.
Brian Williams took over the 6:30 pm eastern broadcast a decade ago, entering a more crowded field with some consumers jaded by the national networks and choosing cable networks that offered more depth and opinionated insight than the formulaic half-hours of broadcast news.
He has maintained his position with authoritative words, a calm demeanor and a unique sense of humor.
In the process, he has become a star, known for his entertainment value that networks push to make money on those shows.
Why else would we have segments like this on Jimmy Fallon’s show?
Jon Stewart, The Informative Entertainer
As the networks continued their battle into the 90s, Viacom-owned Comedy Central took its own enterprise into the late-night estuary with a show that looked more like the 11 pm news than the 11:30 entertainment shows.
The original host for "The Daily Show" was former ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn. He did well, but the game changed in 1999 when the network handed the reins to comedian Jon Stewart.
He had some experience hosting shows on the network and MTV, but he was also known for his role in Adam Sandler’s film, "Big Daddy."
Stewart took over the show and knew he was supposed to be entertaining, delivering the news in a monologue before introducing taped “reports” and interviewing guests.
A funny thing happened when he was going up against local news affiliates: People starting watching him to get their news.
Kilborn was more subdued, while Stewart drew crowds with bombast and exhortative opinions.
He was a cross between Jay Leno and Dan Rather. For those who didn’t trust the national anchors, they turned to Stewart’s kooky satire, who didn't so much tell the news, as lampoon it and the newsmakers.
Watching the show, fans realized not only is Stewart funny, but also a good analyst and darn good journalist.
His guest interviews ranged from celebrities to authors, academics and politicians, even other TV names like Brian Williams.
Ratings were good and Stewart became a star. Ironically, I found out about his plans to leave the desk through Scott Pelley, the anchor of "CBS Evening News," Viacom’s broadcast network and favorite kid.
Watching the explanation, Stewart was honest and forthright; although, we’re still eager for the next chapter in his fascinating life.
Where The Two Converge
Over the summer, I called out Stephen A. Smith from ESPN for his personal injection into the Ray Rice scandal (which got worse and makes us wonder what his comments would've been had he seen the tape in July).
He made the cardinal journalist sin of making the story about himself, and he paid the price. Williams took the same approach, but did so multiple times over various stories and experiences.
When Uncle Jim tells the story about the marlin he caught on that chartered trip and the 50-lb catch becomes 250, it’s not that big of a deal. If he was doing this about seminal events, making it seem like he was in the thick of action, you might have to tell him to stop making stuff up.
In contrast, when asked about his involvement of covering D-Day, Cronkite claimed he didn't know if he flew over Omaha or Utah Beach.
The big question looms over us: Why did Williams risk his career, and $10 million in annual salary from NBC, over-aggrandizing his own status on information people didn't remember, nor care much about?
Does he want that sort of fame and notoriety Stewart possesses, to the point where Seth MacFarlane referred to him as the last voice of reason in Hollywood while the two feuded?
I can’t make sense of why he would make those comments years later. He is an excellent field reporter and made his reputation on that work, even bringing the anchor desk to the story in his present role.
Recently, I read the memoir of ABC producer and television giant Roone Arledge (a must-read for anyone who wants to make money in journalism and understand the history).
He noted when Capital Cities bought ABC in the 80s, his success became more linked to profitability, along with disseminating information and building trust.
In this fractured media world today, the networks need to make money on the news, and grabbing a few more viewers has led to musical anchor chairs, not to mention media appearances and campaigns that have nothing to do with the news.
While Jon Stewart built his reputation with organic support, frank discussions and solid work, Williams’ cautionary tale reeks too much of Hollywood’s nefarious doings.
I hope Brian Williams takes this time to find his motivation and decide if he should return to his on-air job.
If he wants to be a celebrity like his daughter, Allison, who starred in NBC’s live-action "Peter Pan," a network anchor position isn’t the right role.
Perhaps, he should try to take over for Jon Stewart. As for Stewart, I sincerely believe he’d make a sound candidate for public offense, even the presidency.
It would be an interesting transition from critic to man in the arena, trying to do it all instead of just throwing spitballs from the back.
If he chooses to retire to private life and enjoy his family, he has earned that right, as well.