The wrinkles in Brian Williams’ story (stories?) have caused his six month suspension, and plenty of outrage on social media. Some on the left have said that his embellishments are less serious than the embellishments and lies that are regularly put forth by politicians and other news outlets.(I say, that’s no excuse.) Of course, the story points to the iconic role of the American news anchor(man) on network broadcast news–a model that has weathered feminism (sort of), but not the information age.
Perhaps it’s a fine line between an embellishment and a lie, but it seems clear now, that if Williams was not even in the same helicopter that was under fire, his story constitutes a lie. The wrinkle for Williams is that his job is based on trust. The public depends on accurate reporting and truth. Mistakes happen, but knowingly reporting falsehoods is not a mistake. It’s just wrong.
The anchor is the person or thing that provides stability and confidence, particularly during uncertain situations. Jon Stewart, anchor of The Daily Show, has always maintained that he is a comedian/satirist (and has since added writer/director to his resume), but over the last 17 years, has become a real anchor. His faux news show has been more truthful, and taken more seriously, than many non-comedic news programs. His recent announcement that he will leave The Daily Show will undoubtedly be a wrinkle for Comedy Central, but the program, or whatever will replace it, will probably have an audience. He built trust and kept us informed and giggling through extremely uncertain, and often painful, times.
What is most revealing in these two stories that played out this week, practically back to back, is our profound need for an anchor. We may not necessarily need the 6:30 or 7:00 Nightly News, as our lives have changed so dramatically from the days when that was the news time. There have been many wrinkles for broadcast news that have rendered the past and current broadcasts beneath their tasks. The fine lines between news and entertainment continue to be injected with fillers. The comedians do a much finer job of treating wrinkles in the news stories. They may be entertaining first, but the intelligence and integrity are apparent, and engage us completely. It’s what the news programs used to do–anchor us.
Spotting the need for an anchor is one that we might not have thought about in previous generations. Each age of television has had its anchors and standard bearers in news and entertainment. The broadcast news and late night talk shows have endured with their basic formatting for a few generations now. The Daily Show combined those formats and blended the faux news show with a talk show type interview (think Jack Parr) that has been must see tv or wherever for young and young at heart for about a generation and a half in tv years. It remains to be seen if the Daily Show will continue beyond Stewart, but his leaving has left so very many feeling adrift.
The age of The Daily Show has been one fraught with formerly unimaginable craziness and extreme everything–political,environmental, social, religious climate change. This, of course, has intersected with the internet age and the miracles of googling, wikipedia, youtube–all standard and in the palm of one’s hand–rendering network television news quaint, at best. At worst, well…..that’s what we have now.
What I noticed with the surprise and sadness this week, and the profound need for an anchor, is that despite the sense that many have that we are in a steady decline in practically every domain, we have not lost our sense of excellence. We want mensches–those who can discern the fine lines between embellishment and lying, and then be truthful. We can spot truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert), and in this day and age, we need all the intelligence, rich vocabulary, critical thinking, challenging questions, compassion, integrity and generosity that has been on display on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. These attributes are what anchor us.
So, while there may be some wrinkles to be smoothed out, we know that what’s true for the ages will keep us anchored. And laugh lines are beautiful.