The fine line between serious news and infotainment was on striking display Wednesday as stories about the career trajectories of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart were given equal billing and gravitas on newspaper front pages across the country.
Williams, award-winning anchor and managing editor of top-rated “NBC Nightly News” since 2004, who built a sterling reputation with viewers based on trust, was suspended Feb. 10 for six months without pay for misrepresenting events during his reporting of the Iraq War. In little more than a week, his credibility has plummeted after he claimed to have “misremembered” that the Army Chinook in which he was a passenger in 2003 wasn’t the victim of enemy fire.
Stewart, comedian and award-winning executive producer of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” took the helm of the satirical talk show in 1999 and built it into a reliable source for serious news and commentary. In the process, he transformed himself into an influential national ombudsman and “the most trusted man in fake news.” Stewart announced Feb. 10 that he was leaving the top-rated cable show by the end of the year.
The decision of many newspapers to link Williams’s and Stewart’s contrasting stories — in one case, under a single headline — says more about the sobering state of journalism and network news than it does about the ironic turn of each man’s fortunes.
Below the fold on Page One, The New York Times juxtaposed coverage of Williams’s suspension and “low point” with coverage of Stewart’s departure at a “high point.” In subheads, the Times hailed Stewart as a “Comic who became a political power.” Williams was noted for his “6-month hiatus” and “murky future.”
“Anchors Away” was the headline in USA Today, over headshots of Stewart and Williams — with Stewart symbolically placed on top. Newsday used the same tactic, stacking Stewart’s photo on top of Williams’s.
New York’s Daily News gave Williams top billing, though it wasn’t the kind of coverage Williams could boast about. “Bye-Bye Bri!” was the newspaper’s headline. News about Stewart anchored the bottom of the page.
“NBC News faces uncertainty with anchor’s hiatus,” the Los Angeles Times said in its front-page story about Williams. “Comedy, news may never be the same,” was the headline about Stewart.
Stewart’s successful brand of news has spun off three other critically acclaimed shows — “The Colbert Report,” with Stephen Colbert; “Last Week Today,” with John Oliver; and “Nightly Show,” with Larry Wilmore — all starring comedians, like Stewart, whose credibility continue to grow. With an impressive track record like that, it’s no wonder that on today’s front pages, Stewart is the “newsman” who’s taking a bow.