There are two things that columnists really love: irony and symmetry. Last week, a story fell into our laps that gave us both.
On February 10, NBC announced that its longtime anchorman Brian Williams will be suspended for six months without pay. Later that same day, longtime Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart announced his retirement. Williams garnered high ratings and a big salary for his ability to report the truth. Stewart garnered high ratings and a big salary for his ability to satirize the truth. Williams was suspended for exaggerating the news. Stewart retired because he was tired of exaggerating the news. Both Williams and Stewart rose to prominence because of the Iraq war, and now one of them may be out of the news business because of that war.
Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Williams was flying in a convoy of Chinook helicopters, some of which were fired upon. Initially he reported the incident accurately, but as the years went by, his story became embellished. According to the Huffington Post, Williams said in 2008 that "all four of our Chinooks took fire." But in 2013 he told David Letterman, "Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in." Then on January 30 of this year, while anchoring the Nightly News, Williams said that his helicopter was "forced down after being hit by an RPG." Unfortunately for Williams, some of the Chinook crew members who flew that mission, were watching the news cast when Brian weaved his tangled web.
A flurry of blog posts by the crewmen followed, with each one disputing that Brian's chopper had been hit, or that the anchorman had even been anywhere near the danger. Columnists Maureen Dowd, Ben Mathis Lilly, and others reported a post by one crew member who wrote, "Sorry dude. I don't remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened." That and other posts were published in "Stars and Stripes", and suddenly Williams found himself backtracking and apologizing.
Initially Williams said he was taking a few days off while NBC investigated his transgression. But news of other embellishments began to surface, including a similar chopper incident over Israel, and a lie he reported during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NBC had heard enough, and moved quickly to suspend the face of their news division.
Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh speculated that Williams' suspension and Stewart's resignation were not coincidental, and that NBC might be courting Comedy Central's main man to replace Williams. In a way Limbaugh's theory isn't so far fetched. Stewart is a valuable commodity, especially because of his ability to attract a younger demo. In fact, NBC had once approached him about taking over the moderating duties on "Meet the Press". But while Stewart rebuffed the offer to be a real newsman, Williams reportedly asked his bosses at NBC to let him be a real comedian, and succeed Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. The network quashed that idea and hired Jimmy Fallon instead.
On the night he announced his resignation, Jon Stewart said of his friend Brian's suspension, "Finally SOMEONE is being held accountable for misleading America about the Iraq war." It was Stewart's comically biting way of indicting the Bush administration for an illegal invasion, and, at the same time, shaming the networks for never questioning or challenging Bush's motives. It was also yet another reminder that the ascendancy of both Williams and Stewart will forever be inexorably linked to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Immediately following the dual announcements of February 10, Viacom stock prices took a huge hit, and so did Williams' credibility. Stewart was so popular that just the thought of his leaving caused a $350 million dollar drop in stock prices. Meanwhile, Williams was so unpopular that he dropped from # 23 to # 835 on the list of the Most Trusted Americans. That's fifteen points lower than Duck Dynasty's resident homophobe Phil Robertson. Translation? Stewart's stock is on the rise and Williams' is so low it may never recover. Why? Because Brian committed the ultimate sin for a journalist. Columnist Leonard Pitts tells his students, "Your one indispensable asset is your credibility. If you are not believable, nothing else matters." Daily Beast news analyst Andrew Tyndall expanded on that theme, saying of Williams' actions, "The actual lie is a trivial one because it has zero public policy or political implications. But the motive for the lie is really damning. Telling fibs to make yourself look braver than you are?...the moral problems that lie raises are massive."
Jon Stewart is walking away from a job that pays him over $20 million dollars per year to make up stories, while Brian Williams is being removed from a job that pays him $10 million dollars a year to report the truth. Somewhere along the way, Stewart became the more trusted of the two men, and now we know why.
Williams never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Stewart ALWAYS did.
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.
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