Today, something remarkable happened: The host of a fake news show made real news by announcing his departure from the program he has helmed since 1999, while the host of a real news show was suspended by his network for faking details about his experience as a war zone reporter over ten years ago.
Who would have thought that Brian Williams — for years the face of NBC News — would be exiled from the anchor desk for six months by his network’s executives on the same day that Jon Stewart revealed his plans to leave The Daily Show?
Stewart, at least, is going out on his own terms, and at the near peak of what has been an incredible run at Comedy Central as the host of its flagship program:
Mr. Stewart, whose contract with Comedy Central ends in September, disclosed his plans during a taping of the program on Tuesday.
Saying that “in my heart, I know it is time for someone else” to have the opportunity he had, Mr. Stewart told his audience that he was still working out the details of his departure, which “might be December, might be July.”
“I don’t have any specific plans,” Mr. Stewart said, addressing the camera at the end of his show, at times seeming close to tears. “Got a lot of ideas. I got a lot of things in my head. I’m going to have dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people.”
“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow,” Mr. Stewart added, “but this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” Comedy Central did not elaborate on the future of the show, except to say that it “will endure for years to come.”
I cannot imagine The Daily Show without Jon Stewart. After sixteen years, he has come to personify the show. Correspondents have come and gone, with many going on to have successful careers in television and film (Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore) but Jon Stewart has continuously been a reassuring presence behind the desk of Comedy Central’s premier program.
It was tough to lose the Colbert Report back in December, but Jon’s departure from The Daily Show will be tougher still. I didn’t expect Stewart to remain host forever, but I also wasn’t anticipating that he’d leave this year. He’ll be stepping away in the midst of a presidential campaign, just when this country needs him the most.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart helped me and a great many other progressive activists get through the Bush error. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, when Bush and Cheney exploited a nation’s fears to wage war on false pretenses, Jon Stewart was a voice of sanity speaking truth to power through comedy.
More recently, Stewart has done more than anybody else, with the possible exception of David Brock and Media Matters, to hold the Fox Noise Channel accountable for its lies and right wing propaganda. Stewart’s team of writers and artists at The Daily Show have produced a countless number of excellent montages exposing Fox as the giant cog in the Republican Noise Machine that it is.
They may say they’re just trying to entertain us, but we here at NPI consider their body of work to be a public service as well as great comedy.
If I had to pick one word to describe the impact of the The Daily Show is, it might well be therapeutic. It’s no fun feeling frustrated and outraged all the time, nor is it healthy. Evening after evening, Jon Stewart has softened the blow of bad news with an incredibly funny monologue. His show has been a great way to end the day.
Long-running Daily Show contributor Lewis Black once explained during one of his standup specials for Comedy Central why comedy is so valuable.
“All you have to do is look at our enemy,” Black declared. “That’s a group that does not have a sense of humor. That’s a group that has just… snapped. And that’s what happens when you don’t laugh. You get all wound up in what you’re believing in and nobody’s going, ha-ha, and you’re… you’re screwed!”
Those words still ring true today.
Stewart may be incomparable, but he can’t be irreplaceable if The Daily Show is to continue. Who will Comedy Central bring in to fill the giant shoes Stewart is leaving behind? One name I’ve seen thrown around a lot is Amy Poehler, formerly of Saturday Night Live and currently the star of Parks and Recreation, which is in its final season at NBC. I could see Poehler, who used to anchor Weekend Update on SNL, as the successor to Stewart. But the show won’t be the same without him.
Comedy Central at least has time to figure out Stewart’s exit and plan the future of The Daily Show. NBC News, on the other hand, is simply reeling from the scandal that has enveloped Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.
The network’s news division, which is used to reporting the news (not being the news) announced today that Williams has been suspended for six months without any pay. It’s unlikely we’ll be seeing much of him during his network-imposed exile. But, as they say on Broadway, the show must go on. Someone will have to present the news, and that person, at least for the time being, will be Lester Holt.
During Williams’ leave, the network will continue its internal investigation of his conduct, though its executives say they believes he deserves a second chance. NBC News President Deborah Turness explained NBC’s decision in a memo to staff:
As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.
Steve Burke, Pat Fili and I came to this decision together. We felt it would have been wrong to disregard the good work Brian has done and the special relationship he has forged with our viewers over 22 years. Millions of Americans have turned to him every day, and he has been an important and well-respected part of our organization.
As I’m sure you understand, this was a very hard decision. Certainly there will be those who disagree. But we believe this suspension is the appropriate and proportionate action.
A suspension gives the network time to assess the damage Williams has done to his credibility. It also gives the network time to see if possible successors, like Lester Holt, can attract enough viewers to keep NBC from slipping out of first place in the evening news race. If not, NBC can rotate in other temporary replacements until they find a good fit.
Then, in mid-August, when TV news viewership is at its lowest, Williams could come back to work. There would be time to react if there is audience blowback before the fall season and the November ratings period.
If NBC News’ internal investigation finds that Williams faked details while he was in New Orleans covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or fudged other stories, then he may not be brought back at all. And it’s hard to fathom what other news organization might want to employ him.
It’s been sad to watch Williams’ career implode the last few days. But Brian brought this on himself. He didn’t have to embellish and falsify his experiences in Iraq.
There’s been some joking on social media that Williams could succeed Stewart as the host of The Daily Show, but that won’t happen. The Daily Show has thrived (and won twenty Emmys) thanks to the comedic brilliance of its host and writing staff. Comedy Central will most likely be seeking out a proven, available talent like Amy Poehler to carry the program forward into its next era, while NBC tries to keep its lead over ABC and CBS’s evening news broadcasts with Lester Holt as anchor.