Williams Controversy Highlights Perils of Fame in Objective Journalism

Editorial Board

Media lenses turned inward last week when NBC announced its Feb. 10 decision to suspend Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. Revelations that the Emmy Award–winning news personality had repeatedly misrepresented his experiences reporting on a 2003 Iraq War mission left the news network reeling, trying to assess damage done to the network’s credibility. Williams delivered an on-air apology on Feb. 4 for what he called a “mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” but his words were quickly overshadowed by a media cycle determined to scrutinize stories from throughout the anchor’s Nightly News tenure.

On the same day as the suspension, revered newsroom comedian Jon Stewart announced that he would be leaving The Daily Show at the end of 2015. In the previous episode, he offered his own stance on the unfolding NBC debacle. “We got us a case here of infotainment confusion syndrome,” he said. “It occurs when the celebrity cortex gets its wires crossed with the medulla anchordala.” While Stewart’s comments drew laughs from his audience, as usual, there is truth in his humor. Not only does he mock the air of celebrity that Brian Williams exuded when he first embellished his experiences on Letterman’s couch, he also alludes to the exaggerated reaction from the media.

On-air fact-checking apologies are not entirely foreign to Stewart. In April of 2009, in the midst of a heated discussion with conservative journalist Cliff May, Stewart called former President Harry Truman a war criminal for his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A week later, he apologized for the ill-conceived comment, referring to the terrible feeling he got after the show: “And it just sat in there [gestures to stomach] for a couple of days, just sitting going, ‘No, no, [Truman] wasn’t, and you should really say that out loud on the show.’ So I am, right now, and, man, ew. Sorry.” Just this year, after mistakenly listing Dante Parker’s death in police custody in a segment on unarmed Black men recently killed in police shootings, Stewart took to the air again to publicly rescind his prior comment. In both cases, Stewart’s apologies were enough for his audience. But for Brian Williams, not so much.

Stewart’s humorous take on the BriWi embroglio can be interpreted in part as a lighthearted attempt to distance himself from the NBC anchor. To be sure, Stewart and Williams have much in common. In his final piece, “Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths” (Feb. 11, 2015) recently deceased New York Times columnist David Carr wrote of similarities in the two media icons’ trajectories toward fame, with both attaining celebrity status fueled by high viewership and loyal fan bases. Both have sizable collections of Emmy Awards. Williams, who has made frequent appearances on late-night TV shows, has appeared regularly in the guest seat on The Daily Show.

Yet Stewart frequently reminds media critics that he is first and foremost a comedian, despite his opinionated role in the realm of “fake news.” Williams, on the other hand, is first and foremost a journalist, despite his proclivity for late-night appearances. In the current media environment, the most significant difference between the two professions is the level of objectivity to which they aspire. While Stewart and Williams have both incorrectly reported facts on their respective shows, the impact of their missteps is different. While Stewart’s errors appear in the context of a show overtly guided by the host’s own opinions, Williams’s untruths are presented to upwards of 9 million viewers under the guise of objective news: history, recorded as it unfolds, unaffected by the reporter’s opinions. When purportedly objective journalists of Williams’s stature report untruths, they violate their viewers’ trust by selling them a distorted historical record.

Some commentators, including this Editorial Board, have decried objectivity as an unattainable standard, one which inevitably carries the potential to violate audiences’ trust by obscuring reporters’ inherent biases. Writing for the A.V. Club, Caitlin PenzeyMoog suggests that when practicing within the confines of objectivity, reporters “must pretend to be robots. That’s bad for journalism, bad for engagement, and bad for the people who benefit from strong reporting.” Stewart, she argues, succeeds precisely because he uses humor to free himself from that standard. Williams, whose public personality and frequent forays into late night TV have long been at odds with the robotic objectivity of nightly news programs, seems to prove her point.

Public figures — from politicians to comedians to journalists — must be held accountable for their biases and opinions, and media personalities such as Williams and Stewart are no exception. And in virtually all public professions, opinions are part of the trade. “It doesn’t seem possible for any intelligent person to explore an issue and not, in that process, form opinions on it,” PenzeyMoog rightly suggests. “It’s more harmful to pretend that reporters don’t have opinions, because we don’t know how those opinions might be affecting the story.”

Breaking news journalism, so the saying goes, is the rough draft of history. Good journalists, however, must take the initiative to revise previous drafts swiftly and diligently — and to recognize their own place in the story.