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Why Jon Stewart’s Fake News Has Triumphed Over Brian Williams’ Cold, Hard Facts

Analysis: A younger generation of media consumers has plenty of information. Now it wants perspective and insight

Jon Stewart Brian Williams Job Switch

While Brian Williams, an anchor of a real, hard-news evening broadcast, is stepping down, John Oliver, the “anchor” of what is supposed to be a fake, satirical-news program, is stepping up.

As HBO moved toward the launch of the second season of “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver’s program, producers hired three new researchers from places like ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine. The move was necessary, Oliver explained earlier this month during a meeting with reporters, to give staffers more time to delve into the heady topics he explores each week (past segments have tackled esoteric topics like net neutrality, native advertising and corruption in the organization behind the World Cup).

“We want to be able to give everyone at least two weeks, to give that level of time to stories that need it,” he said of the staff that helps him construct segments lasting as long as 12 to 18 minutes. His reports at times appear to contain more reporting and research than many stories presented by counterparts in the actual business of informing the public. At a time when the attention span of the viewing public seems to be dwindling, Oliver’s ability to gain traction with hefty segments not broken up by advertising “does fly in the face of how you are supposed to make television,” he acknowledged.

NBC’s decision to suspend Brian Williams and Jon Stewart’s announcement that he would leave Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” were revealed within minutes of each other Tuesday evening, and the two TV events have very little other than that connection to string them together. In fact, the reaction accorded each speaks volumes about the way the modern consumer wants news and information.  The need for traditional TV news is fading, while the desire for analysis, perspective and context is fast on the rise.

NBC last night suspended Williams for six months without pay, a punishment meted out after the anchor on multiple occasions fabricated an account of a trip aboard a helicopter during a 2003 reporting expedition to Iraq. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate,” said Steve Burke, chief executive of NBCUniversal, in a statement released last night.

The decision is not likely to come without consequences. Williams is the most-watched anchor of a time-honored TV staple once integral to the national discourse. In 2015, however, many Americans don’t get home in time for the CBS, NBC and ABC newscasts. ABC’s recent decision to take George Stephanopoulos, the anchor of  Sunday’s “This Week” and co-anchor of “Good Morning America,” and make him its lead person for all breaking news and special reports, speaks volumes about which programs draw the broadest swath of viewership.

“NBC Nightly News” won’t disappear with Williams offscreen. But it may be more susceptible to inroads from competitors. In 2013, the average total viewership for “NBC Nightly News” slipped 0.7% to 8.4 million, according to analysis of Nielsen data by Pew Research Center, while average viewership for ABC’s “World News Tonight” rose 2.2% to 7.7 million and average viewership for CBS’ “CBS Evening News” increased 6.5% to 6.5 million viewers. In recent months, a new, younger anchor at ABC, David Muir, has helped propel ABC’s evening newscast in the category most meaningful to advertisers in news programs, people between 25 and 54.

Meantime, Jon Stewart has become, for a certain generation, a sort of Walter Cronkite. You can’t say Stewart expended shoe-leather in hopes of nailing an interview with a whistleblower or clandestine government official, but he did try to speak truth to power, revealing things about politics and mass media through observation and satire.  Stephen Colbert did much the same in his portrayal of a bloviating political pundit in “Colbert Report,” which served as a companion to “Daily” on Comedy Central for more than nine years.

The two skewered news of the day but also the coverage of that news, giving younger audiences the sense that someone was watching out for them, and that has served to diminish traditional news programming in their eyes,  argue Jeremy Littau and Daxton Stewart, two academics who wrote a study called “Fake News Views: How Satire News Plays a Role in Perceptions of Television News Credibility.” According to their treatise, “television news programs may face quite a challenge in building credibility with young audiences that consume satire news heavily.”

Little wonder, then, that Oliver’s program has gained traction and critical plaudits. And there’s more out there. Since January, Larry Wilmore’s “Nightly Report” has chewed over topics like obesity, sexual assault,  black fatherhood, and the anti-vaccine movement, all at 11:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.  That’s not stuff you see on Fallon, Letterman or Kimmel – or on most traditional news programs, either.

A cadre of anthropomorphic creatures created by The Jim Henson Company offers perspectives on trending topics on “No, You Shut Up,” a satirical program on Fusion, the start-up network owned by Univision and ABC News. The cast includes a red crab and blue crab who hash things out and a Christian conservative red squirrel. The creator is David Javerbaum, a former executive producer for “The Daily Show.”

Chelsea Handler, who held forth in latenight on E! for seven years, chatting about gossip and celebrities, intends to launch a new program via Netflix that she recently likened to “’60 Minutes’ in a different format.” The shows will “delve into worlds I don’t know anything about,” she said in a recent interview, and examine ideas people think they already understand, but not truly comprehend.

As traditional newscasts duke it out for an audience that has shrunk over the decades, programs containing spirited takes on the events of the day seem to be thriving. No one is counting on Bill Maher to tell them what’s happening during a terrorist attack or political assassination, but his “Real Time” on HBO has become an intriguing forum for picking apart political rhetoric on topics ranging from climate change to the electoral process.

As newsy dispatches sail across the ether on Twitter and publishers devise ways to get their articles in front of Facebook users, as CNN and MSNBC place more emphasis on streaming-video products that let users have more control over what they watch and when, the world may no longer need a Brian Williams, particularly one whose actions make trust impossible to thrive. But it may just need more Jon Stewarts.