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What Matters More To America: The Brian Williams Debacle, Or Jon Stewart's Departure?

Brian Williams and Jon Stewart backstage at "The New York Comedy Festival And The Bob Woodruff Foundation Present: The 7th Annual Stand Up For Heroes" event at Madison Square Garden in Nov. 2013.
Bryan Bedder
Getty Images
Brian Williams and Jon Stewart backstage at "The New York Comedy Festival And The Bob Woodruff Foundation Present: The 7th Annual Stand Up For Heroes" event at Madison Square Garden in Nov. 2013.

"I can't be the first person to notice that Brian Williams and Jon Stewart both seem available in about 6 months," NPR's Scott Simon recently tweeted.

It's hard not to compare the two.

Stewart, a satirist who hosts the very popular Daily Show on Comedy Central announced yesterday that he is stepping down. On the same day, it was announced that Williams, the longtime anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, is being suspended without pay, due to misrepresenting his experiences in Iraq. Perhaps most surprising, however, is that when it comes to Williams, Americans seem to care very little.

While media critics are decrying the dent Williams' remarks will make in the credibility of broadcast network news, it turns out most Americans don't even know who Williams is. A new online survey by the Pew Research Center found only 27% of the public could correctly identify him from his photograph.

Audiences have been losing interest in news anchors since the 1980's. Thirty years ago, nearly half (47%) of Americans could identify Dan Rather (who at the time was the anchor for the top-rated CBS evening News). In November of 1985, an average of 48 million Americans watched network newscasts every evening. By 2013, only 24.5 million did, according to a Pew Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. Young people are the least likely to watch network news regularly. Pew says only 11% of people 18-29 watched in 2012.

Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research for Pew, told NPR "Clearly the landscape of news has widened dramatically since 1985, in terms of the different outlets, the providers, the individuals, names and faces that are in the mix. There has been a precipitous decline in the audience for network evening news over the last several decades." Mitchell adds "network evening news is still one, if not the largest single source for news. You have close to 24 million than tune into one of the three commercial news broadcasts each night."

Washington Post reporter Ryan McCarthy says it's about technology, and the ever expanding array of options for where people can get their news. "The Daily Show rose to prominence at the same time that everyone in America had the ability to find out information. To call people out on errors in the internet" says McCarthy. "When [Jon Stewart] was calling out Fox news, or calling out MSNBC or calling out Donald Rumsfeld, he was trying to add more truth to the discussion in media. And the internet made it impossible to hide anymore. People could find almost any facts. People could Google things. People could watch The Daily Show at any time. I definitely think he succeeded because there was this hole in media. Media hadn't quite update to the internet."

There was also a growing distrust in media. A 2014 Gallup Pollshowed that trust in mass media was at an all time low, across partisan lines. "Americans' confidence in the media's ability to report 'the news fully, accurately, and fairly' has returned to its previous all-time low of 40%" said the poll. "Americans' trust in mass media has generally been edging downward from higher levels in the late 1990s and the early 2000s."27 year-old listener Oscar Villafuente, from Texas, wrote: "It's about time this country has a talk about ethics in journalism ... Unfortunately in the United States ratings and money rule the airwaves."

Where Americans are getting their news also says something about the political polarization of the country. Another Pew Research Center study, from 2014, indicates that media is more fragmented than ever. The study, entitled Political Polarization & Media Habits,found that "When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust." Over the years, various polls have indicated that many Americans, particularly the young and liberals, got their news from Comedy Central. Mitchell says as of 2014, "about 12% of web using adults watched The Daily Show, in the past week, for political news."

In a Washington Post article entitled Why Jon Stewart And Brian Williams Should Just Switch Jobs, Terrence McCoy wrote about the reactions across social media, in the wake of the joint news of Stewart stepping down and Williams being suspended. "They called for something that at first seemed totally insane but, as it sank in, began to make sense: Jon Stewart, now as much a newsman as a comedian, and Brian Williams, now as much a comedian as a newsman, should just switch chairs. Let that marinate for a moment."

But for many NPR listeners, that makes no sense at all. Rahsaan Lucas from Philadelphia, tweeted "Brian Williams: the final straw that broke the back of credible TV journalism. John Stewart: proof we crave alt opinions & honest news." Rick Spies, 34, wrote from Colorado to say "Jon Stewart serves as a sort of filter, calling out things the news media seems not to want to, or calling them out for misrepresenting issues." But Spies says Stewart and Williams roles should not be confused. He says Stewart is "his own animal and not necessarily a journalist as much as an ombudsman of a sort ... Unfortunately, I find that all of the major "news" networks these days are anything but. Infotainment at best."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.

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