No, Jon Stewart did not punt or “soft glove” covering the Brian Williams story, as it was suggested he might on Salon, citing his friendly relationship with the NBC News anchor. But the Comedy Central host did widen the lens and, as some other voices have, refract the pile-on over Williams’ inaccurate account back onto the media in general.
On Monday’s show — Stewart’s first since Williams pulled himself off the air, while NBC investigates the misleading claims he made regarding his reporting from Iraq — “The Daily Show” host labeled Williams’ differing versions of what happened “Infotainment Confusion Syndrome,” citing the conflicting roles Williams occupies as a celebrity, yukking it up with David Letterman, and a newsman.
Spinning yarns in those talk settings, Stewart noted, stimulates the brain’s “applause center,” which might explain why a news account would get inflated and distorted in a more entertaining, self-aggrandizing way.
Notably, Stewart made no apologies for Williams (the piece was chyron-ed “Bri Wi Hot Spot”), who also was ribbed on Larry Wilmore’s companion Comedy Central half-hour and by Conan O’Brien (“Brian Williams won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word in the Fiction category. At least I think he did — that’s what he told me”). Bill O’Reilly also defended Williams on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
Still, it was Stewart who turned the discussion back upon those media outlets expressing righteous indignation about Williams’ transgressions, essentially asking where they were when so many dutifully repeated Bush administration spin during the run-up to invading Iraq. Or as Stewart put it, pointedly, referencing Williams, “Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war.”
Stewart’s clips included former New York Times editor Bill Keller and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, both giving themselves passing grades for Iraq coverage in hindsight, with Blitzer suggesting that journalism is merely a first draft of history.
The media frenzy surrounding Williams has hardly subsided, but it has given way to additional reflection that goes beyond the particulars of this case. Some of that, admittedly, can sound naive, such as the New York Times’ David Brooks, citing the “barbaric” nature of the modern reaction to scandals; or National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who lamented the “charge of the bile brigade” unleashed in response to such stories before moving on to some new outrage. “My hope is that as the new platforms evolve, the public will adapt and technology will be used as it has so many times in the past: To educate and unite the masses,” Fournier wrote, overlooking that we’re still largely in the peasants-with-pitchforks phase.
Stewart could easily be accused of the same kind of idealism in trying to shift the focus off Williams, just a bit, to one of his favorite topics: journalism’s broader failings.
To some, attempting to turn the spotlight simply represents a means of defending Williams, but Stewart didn’t offer any alibi for the anchor. Instead, he seemed to be intent on injecting a level of perspective into the coverage that, frankly, remains one of the program’s invaluable strengths in these situations.
Because the truth is if media outlets want to fairly capture all the implications of the still-unfolding Williams story — beyond the specifics of whether the NBC News star has irrevocably damaged his career through an unnecessary lie — they’re going to need a bigger mirror.