Playing the Fool on the Evening News

Brian Williams in caricature

Brian Williams in caricature

The evening news just won’t be the same.

Brian Williams, a respected journalist and evening news anchor, has been suspended from the nation’s top rated evening news program after he admitted to embellishing a story about his coverage of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. In announcing the six month suspension, Stephen Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, said, “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”

News of Williams’s suspension came just a few hours after news broke that another late-night news fixture anchor was leaving his chair when Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show for 17 years, announced that he would be leaving. Smartasses on Twitter were quick to respond:

Brian Williams may have anchored the top-rated evening newscast, but Jon Stewart’s impact on news coverage can’t be overstated. He may have hosted a comedy show, but humor was really only part of the point of The Daily Show. His show delivered biting critique and commentary on current events, politics, and especially the shortcomings of the mainstream news media. He was so influential that, according to multiple surveys over the years, American’s under 30 were just as likelyand at times more so – to turn to Jon Stewart as to a “mainstream” news source. His commentary on Brian Williams’s suspension illustrates this modus operandi exquisitely:

Guardians of the Veracity

There was an old tradition in European royal courts, by now long gone, of the court jester, or the fool. The fool could use humor and parody to call out the pretensions of nobility and offer frank criticism of the political world that – otherwise – no one could dare give without insulting the king. In many ways Jon Stewart plays the same role of the fool today. He knows that his place is on a comedy network, and that his job is to keep people entertained, but he knows how to offer smart and sharp criticism, and he’s enabled those of us who’ve watched him over the years to think more critically about the words and actions of our leaders in politics, in entertainment, and in the news media.

The fool’s ability to speak truth to power may just be what makes Brian Williams’s fall from grace stand out. He belongs to a respected news organization, one that depends on our trusting confidence that it will provide a sober – and not foolish – investigation of significant stories and issues. Now that the news is out about Brian Williams, more curious stories are emerging about his tenure at NBC, including that he expressed interest in taking over for comedian Jay Leno when he retired from The Tonight Show; Williams was a frequent guest on the late night television comedy circuit. Brian Williams may have had the chops for serious news, but along the way, it seems, he forgot his role. A journalist needs to tell the story straight; he must not embellish. Neither, for that matter, can he forget the difference between a news reporter and the palace fool.

Fortunately for us, the role of the fool was already capably filled by Jon Stewart. Unfortunately, for Brian Williams, he just made a fool of himself.

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Brian Williams caricature courtesy Flickr user DonkeyHotey, found here.

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