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Making Sense of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart

Feb 14, 2015

The world of TV news, and TV fake news, was shaken this week.  

Credit npr.org

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended without pay for six months after his embellishment of his Iraq war coverage experience was exposed.

And then The Daily Show's Jon Stewart announced that he's leaving the fake news anchor desk by the end of the year.

Do these big changes in TV news signal a sea change in broadcasting?

You have to admit that a trusted anchor leaving the air over trust issues and the fake newsman who many trusted for their real news departing the airwaves at the same time somehow seems significant.

Of course, there's not a literal connection between the Brian Williams and Jon Stewart stories, but it feels like there is.

"The two of them have been associated with each other. Brian Williams has gone on Jon Stewart's show. They are roughly of the same era. Brian Williams has been on the air for 12 years or so, Jon Stewart 17 years. It seems like they are of the same generation of big television," said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project. "I suspect when we look back 20, 30 years from now we will look at this particular moment this week and say that was a sign of bigger shifts happening in the television industry."

Since Williams and Stewart are, essentially, TV contemporaries -- albeit on vastly different ends of the information programming spectrum -- it is pretty clear that Stewart probably had a bigger impact on Williams' on air persona than vice-versa.

"Jon Stewart invented a new form of media criticism when he started his show. Nobody was making fun of the  media and doing it in a way that was actually subversive journalism. Jon Stewart was creating a new genre of news, if you will. Fake news," McBride explained. "I think Jon Stewart impacted Brian Williams because, suddenly, Brian Williams wasn't just competing against the two other nightly news broadcasts for audience. He suddenly had to compete against John Stewart and John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. And that's one of the reasons Brian Williams was doing what he was doing -- which was making himself a personality."