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When Journalists Become Entertainers: The Brian Williams Story

Brian Williams doesn't want to be Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, but instead Jon Stewart or Jimmy Fallon.
When Journalists Become Entertainers: The Brian Williams Story
Image from: NBC

That NBC Evening News anchor Brian Williams falsely tried to appropriate the heroism of America's actual fighting men and women is bad enough. (In that he has plenty of company; Ronald Reagan recalled his role in the liberation of Nazi death camps among "all the bad things that happened in that war" when "I was in uniform four years myself.") Williams' sin is even greater--and more serious-- than that. He is now the poster child for depressing and dangerous devolution of American journalism into just another form of entertainment.

Whether his reporting concerned his supposed courage under fire in Iraq, his personal trauma in hurricane devastated New Orleans or his own recovery from knee surgery, Brian Williams was the story. Apparently, Williams wants to be much more than a mere news anchor. Instead, he seems to aspire to the status of pop culture icon as a comedian and entertainer who appears wherever large, hipper and younger audiences can be found. He doesn't want to be Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, but Jon Stewart or Jimmy Fallon.

Just two weeks ago, NBC's Today Show reported on Williams' latest appearance on the network's Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon:

Williams, of course, has famously slow jammed the news with Fallon, and the "Tonight Show" host has remixed Williams' "Nightly News" shows to take on rap songs including Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," Snoop Dogg's "Nuthing But A G Thang," Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's "Good Vibrations" and Warren G's "Regulate."

It was altogether fitting that the Today headline was "Jimmy Fallon once heckled Brian Williams outside of 30 Rock." After all, by 2010 NBC's "King of Cameos" was reshaping his image as an on-screen jokester. As the Daily Beast explained five years ago:

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams seems to be making a second career of cameos lately--and we like it. Earlier this week, he guest starred on The Daily Show and SNL, and last night, he stole the show (for a too-brief five seconds) on 30 Rock.

In 2011, a New York magazine profile summed up Williams' transformation:


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It's all worked almost too well. These days, when people come up to Williams in public, more often than not it's to praise his extracurricular work. "No one ever stops me at La Guardia to say 'That oil-price-per-barrel graphic you guys use? Killer,' " he says. At the same time, given the role his lighter side has played in keeping his cultural footprint from shrinking, one could argue that Williams has yet to really receive his due as a comedian. He gets credit for showing up, but not enough for what he does once he gets there. A close study of Williams's ever-growing body of work reveals a versatile performer who can disappear into a character, play the straight man, deliver a monologue, or trade barbs from the other side of the desk. He's a confident, kempt success in a profession dominated by neurotics and Apatovian man-children. Isn't it time we took the comedy of Brian Williams seriously?

If so, it's time that we stopped taking the journalism of Brian Williams seriously.

Ironically, it was Brian Williams himself who spotlighted the failings of his own profession when he acknowledged the importance of the Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. Williams, a guest and would-be comic sparring partner for Stewart over 20 times, explained in January 2010 the essential truth-seeking service the comedy show host provides:

"Jon's always in the back of my mind. ... When you make The Daily Show, it's usually not for a laurel, it's for a dart...

"A lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious," Williams says. "They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness. ... It's usually delivered with a smile -- sometimes not. It's not who we do it for, it's not our only check and balance, but it's healthy -- and it helps us that he's out there."

As it turns out, "it" helps millions of Americans, too. Studies have shown that a show that tells "jokes about the news" has become a vital source of information for its viewers (and one that happens to be more trusted than MSNBC). There's no surprise as to why. While Jon Stewart provides comic-fact-checking of the spurious claims made by politicians, press and pundits alike, Brian Williams' NBC colleague and Meet the Press host Chuck Todd explained that the search for objective truth isn't his job.

Which brings us to the final irony of the decline and fall of Brian Williams and the American media. When journalists become entertainers, entertainers become journalists. That, at least the demand of the likes of Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz and Time contributor James Poniewozik. While Kurtz sneered at the "neat little game that Jon Stewart is playing," Poniewozik recently declared, "Unfortunately, John Oliver, you are a journalist." It's unfortunate, all right, not because it's true, but because it's necessary.

The host of HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is having none of it:

"We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it's always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is 'comedy.'"

And the correct term for what Brian Williams does is entertainment.

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