NEW YORK (AP) — Jon Stewart and Brian Williams were mirror images of each other in an era when the nature of TV news, like the people who present it, has increasingly been muddled.
And on Tuesday, the career of each of these big-time TV stars — a fake news anchor and a real one — lurched in an unexpected, opposite direction.
For each, the future seemed clearer in the summer of 1992.
Stewart, then 29, was an up-and-coming standup comic who had just cracked TV. Williams, 33, was a newsman on a local New York station, just months from joining NBC News.
And Comedy Central, little more than a year old, was introducing its “Indecision ’92” faux-news coverage of the race between President George H.W. Bush and challenger Bill Clinton, anchored by humorist (and future U.S. senator) Al Franken. Here was a signal: What was news, and what wasn’t, was already getting muddled.
By early last week, Stewart, TV’s king of political satire after 16 years as anchor of “The Daily Show,” was presumably stoked to lead his network’s “Indecision 2016” coverage into the upcoming presidential clash.
Williams, anchor of NBC’s ratings champ “Nightly News” for a decade and frequent guest on such fare as “The Daily Show,” had recently signed a contract assuring him another few years in the anchor chair.
Each was at the top of his game and flourishing accordingly.
Then at almost the same hour Tuesday night, one of them announced he was leaving his show to pursue new, possibly greater, heights.
The other was officially branded an outcast, suspended by his network for six months for having stretched the truth about a story he had covered, with his eventual return to NBC open to doubt.
These were head-spinning developments for any viewer to absorb, a bizarro-world outcome in a helter-skelter media landscape that Williams, no less than Stewart, had seemed to navigate brilliantly.
Here was Williams, who, early on, understood that the old-school Voice-of-God-style anchorman was a dying breed. Instead, he put forth a regular-guy brand of authority. He was the former New Jersey volunteer firefighter who would tell it to you straight.
Then, to broaden his appeal — and his celebrity — he made the rounds of talk shows, demonstrating his quick wit and easy charm in dozens of appearances on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” ”The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” ”Late Show with David Letterman” (where he was scheduled to appear again this week until the scandal broke) and some 22 times on “The Daily Show.”
He slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon. He had multiple turns on the comedy series “30 Rock.” He hosted “Saturday Night Live.”
It seemed that, with every guest appearance, Williams was bucking for another social-media embrace, that he was inching toward the entertainment realm from which Stewart sprang, inserting himself into that space in an effort to broaden his relevance in his.
And it all seemed to be working. Until, without warning, it wasn’t.
NBC said Tuesday it was suspending Williams from his job for six months, without pay, for misleading the public about his experience covering the Iraq War in 2003. He had claimed in numerous reports and appearances that he was riding in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade. But last week, when he was exposed, he admitted that another helicopter — not his — was struck. Amid a public outcry, he has been off the air since the weekend. An investigation by the network into his past statements is continuing.
What a shock it must have been to Williams, this seasoned TV personality, to find himself accountable for gulling his public, to be reminded that trust could be withdrawn in a flash, whatever his store of goodwill.
“Why, Bri? Why lie?” posed Stewart, mock-plaintively, on Monday’s “Daily Show” as he derided Williams as well as the media’s obsession with the scandal.
But that’s what Stewart has been doing since 1999, when he inherited “The Daily Show,” taking over from Craig Kilborn, who had launched it three years earlier as a nondescript chat show fueled by gags and silly talk.
Stewart remade the format as a funhouse version of the sort of real-life newscast Williams would start anchoring on NBC in 2004. But in his choice of content — the topical commentaries and reports — Stewart remade “The Daily Show” in his own satiric vision, calling out rogues and reprobates in government and beyond.
Under Stewart, “The Daily Show” stood apart from the mainstream media, in perfect synch with a surging appetite for alternative news. When it was paired in 2005 with the spin-off “Colbert Report,” Comedy Central could boast what the Big Three networks never had: a nightly one-hour news block, which, for some, often younger, viewers served as their primary information source.
What “The Daily Show” delivered, with its shrewd observations, irreverence and laughs, was a hybrid form of news that won a loyal viewership. It was a talked-about and tweeted-about forum, a cultural touchstone and a political tip-sheet available not only on TV but also as digital tidbits dispersed around the globe. It took its place in the national conversation in a way the likes of “Nightly News” could only dream of.
Yet Stewart never presumed to be a real journalist. In fact, “fake” became his chosen word in describing his show and his role on it.
How bizarre (or was it?) when reports surfaced last year that he was approached by NBC to be the host of “Meet the Press.” Confirming the reports, he said he had declined.
And now, he has revealed that he’ll be gone from “The Daily Show” by year’s end, taking his authority and eye for life’s absurdities with him. It’s easy to conclude Stewart will be irreplaceable.
The suspended Williams may well prove to be otherwise.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore