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News anchors away: Stewart, Williams and the news about the news

IMG_3765Guest Commentary

Brent Goff, DW News Main Anchor

This was not the way I planned to start the day. In fact, I got very little sleep last night after I heard the news. The news about the news. The news about what the news just lost — times two. In the span of less than an hour, the two most (still) trusted and recognized television news anchors in the United States announced that they are leaving.

When I heard the news alarm on my iPhone and read the headline “Most trusted journalist is hanging it up”, I immediately assumed this was the career benediction for NBC’s “misremember” main anchor, Brian Williams. But I was jolted out of my sleep when I realized the headline referred to the host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart.

My instinct — to associate “most trusted journalist” with a major news operation such as NBC — was right and yet oh so wrong. Not immediately including a faux-news anchorman in my calculus of highest trust seemed normal, but it does not compute in the new normal.

And then it hit me: We journalists live and operate in two realities. One, in which we like to see ourselves. The other, in which the world perceives us. The two are disturbingly different.

NBC’s announcement that “Nightly News” Anchor Brian Williams will take a six-month leave without pay in the wake of “Misremember-Gate” received cynical eyebrow-raising reactions on social media. Six months? Is that long enough? What happens after six months? Will we forgive and forget and allow Williams to reassume his news throne?

When the flash came that Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show, it felt like a modern day version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. A collective oh-no-say-it-ain’t-so rang out across social media. Twitter exploded with #JonStewart along with Internet prayers for Stewart to change his mind. B9ho-scIIAErfHk.jpg-large

Many people suggested, and not jokingly, that Stewart should replace Williams at NBC. It didn’t help that the New York Times reported that Brian Williams had shown serious interest in replacing late-night talk show host Jay Leno. One of the world’s most successful and recognized TV news anchors had considered leaving his prized perch to tell jokes and interview celebrities about their laugh lines.  Who can blame the public for being cynical and reallocating their trust?

This crisis of trust knows no borders. In Germany, public television is criticized as a bloated bureaucratic store-house for editors who prefer comfort reporting and resist their duty to act as watchdogs of the government. Even the German version of The Daily Show has not escaped serious breaches of journalism, further adding to the public’s notion that reporters are more pseudo than real.

The television itself runs the risk of becoming traitor in the new normal. Thanks to reports that smart TV’s may have the ability to record our conversations and forward the information to third parties, consumers are being advised to monitor their chatter in front of the telly.

All of this contributes to an erosion of the trust journalists work everyday to earn. Traditional news authorities lose while unorthodox purveyors of common sense wrapped in satire win the day.

We can’t all be Jon Stewart. So what can journalists do to diminish this sad dichotomy?

Consider this: Before the revelations that he lied in his Iraq War reporting, Brian Williams ranked as the 23rd-most-respected person in the US and he drew the largest audience every evening (this, despite the new normal). His ranking is now at 835, putting him on par with cable television actors in series with titles such as “Duck Dynasty”.

The point is clear: Despite the massive failings of traditional journalists and the uptake in popularity of faux-news, the public continues to give us the benefit of the doubt. The decades of delivering strong, reliable journalism in Western Europe and North America have not been forgotten. Our journalism transgressions are still met with public redemption. But this won’t last forever. Our task is to recommit ourselves everyday to the age-old principles of solid journalism and credible news reporting, and to be courageous and bold in presenting our product as it is: the honorable quest of the truth.

Anyone who would trade that job for late-night talk is not worth losing sleep over.


2015-02-11 | 3:30



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