Brian Williams, anchor of "NBC Nightly News," is in a world of hurt right now. Earlier this week, a tale that Williams has been telling for some time -- a story about being in a helicopter that came under RPG fire while Williams was covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- has turned out to be, at best, embellished. (Williams himself has said that he "made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," a claim that Twitter had some fun with, as Twitter will.)
Since then, Williams has earned a more visceral awareness of what it's like to come under fire. Critics have called this episode an "unmitigated disaster" for Williams. His most esteemed colleague, Tom Brokaw, appeared in reports -- hastily walked-back reports, anyway -- calling for Williams' head to roll. Now, with the scent of blood in the air, Williams' name-making reporting from Hurricane Katrina is being re-scrutinized. In short, media critics of all stripes are coming at this story, serrated knives out. All of which makes me wonder how one of Williams' friends in the world of media criticism -- "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart -- is going to handle the whole thing.
Much has been made about "The Daily Show's" meaningful role in 21st-century public discourse, even though Stewart has insisted many times that the show is a comedic, not a journalistic, institution -- a line of argument that some critics of the show consider a cheap dodge. But whatever else "The Daily Show" is, it's also a potent platform for media criticism. And for media critics, the Brian Williams affair -- in which a face-of-the-newsroom celebrity journalist has been caught telling dodgy war stories -- is a slow and hanging pitch, right over the plate. If it was, say, Sean Hannity at the center of this controversy, there wouldn't be much to do but sit back and watch Stewart and his writers flay the guy in HD.
But Williams is an altogether different animal in "The Daily Show's" universe. He's someone whom Stephen Colbert, Stewart's erstwhile Comedy Central compatriot, might call a "friend of the show." Williams and Stewart have, over the course of many interviews, developed something of a collegial relationship -- if not an outright bromance. Not for nothing did Irin Carmon, writing at Jezebel back in February 2010, implore the two men to "get a room already."
That's not to say that Stewart hasn't been willing to give Williams the business. On July 20, 2009, Williams appeared on "The Daily Show," ostensibly to talk about the life and career of Walter Cronkite, who had recently passed away. But Stewart wanted to make Williams and his network the butt of jokes over emails that "Meet The Press" host David Gregory had sent Mark Sanford, then the embattled governor of South Carolina. In those emails, a grovelling Gregory promised Sanford he could use Gregory's show to "frame the conversation as [Sanford] really want[s]." Here's that interview:
So -- not fun for Williams, but also not anything that rises past the level of "awkward." This is a pretty good representation of the Stewart-Williams dynamic, to be honest. Stewart often uses Williams as a foil in more wide-reaching jokes about the media, but Williams is nevertheless almost always cast as the raissoneur in these debates. One of the good ones, you might say.
And Stewart has been compensated, somewhat, in the form of compliments from Williams -- who doesn't hesitate to put Stewart on a pedestal. In a January 2010 interview with NPR's Guy Raz, Williams called Stewart "indispensable" to the news business, and said that he often makes editorial decisions with "The Daily Show" in "the back of [his] mind":
Williams tells NPR's Guy Raz that on occasion, when he feels his broadcast tap-dancing toward the precipice -- tossing around a story idea for "what I call Margaret Mead journalism -- where we 'discover Twitter,' " for instance, or entertaining some other unfortunate editorial possibility -- "I will, and have, said that, 'You know, maybe we can just give a heads-up to Jon to set aside some time for that tonight.'
"I should quickly add, we have another set of standards we put our stories through," Williams cautions. "But Jon's always in the back of my mind. ... When you make The Daily Show, it's usually not for a laurel, it's for a dart."
This is an intriguing thing to ponder. How many times, in the course of Williams' tenure at "NBC Nightly News," has he nipped some questionable segment in the bud by telling his colleagues, "If we continue down this road, we're going to get raked over the coals by Jon Stewart"? In his conversation with Raz, Williams more or less positioned Stewart as the Good Angel of Journalism perched on his handsome shoulder. It makes you wonder why Stewart's nagging voice didn't intervene any of the times Williams trotted out the helicopter story that has now laid him low.
At any rate, the Williams imbroglio really seems like an ideal topic for "The Daily Show" to tackle. Perhaps it's the best venue for Williams to explain himself.
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