• Ideas
  • Media

Yes, It’s Time for Both Brian Williams and Jon Stewart to Move On

6 minute read
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.

It’s weird that Jon Stewart announced he was stepping away from The Daily Show the same day that NBC announced its six-month suspension of Brian Williams from NBC Nightly News.

Stewart has long described himself and his show as trafficking in “fake news,” whereas Williams is being punished for faking news about himself (over and over again). One is leaving the small screen on a “career high note,” as The New York Times puts it, while the other is slowly fading away to that great Green Room in the sky. Does anyone really think Brian Williams will be back when his suspension ends? Does anyone really care?

In a real way, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, which he’s been hosting since 1999, helped kill off “real news” shows such as NBC Nightly News by making them superfluous. Who needs to watch someone simply read the news when you can watch someone deliver the same information, plus a satire of the medium itself? Especially for people under 50, who have no memories of Papa Cronkite and who remember supposedly legendary anchors such as Dan Rather only for bizarre episodes (“Kenneth, What is the Frequency?”) and outright fabrications, The Daily Show was a one-stop show for news and commentary on the news. In an age of multi-tasking, that’s a godsend.

See Jon Stewart's Most Memorable Guests On The Daily Show

Kurt Vonnegut appeared on the show in 2005, one of his last public appearances. Comedy Central
Denis Leary and Jon Stewart have long been friends, so every time the actor appeared on the show, the two comedians would opt to make fun of one another rather than conduct an interview, leaving the audience in stitchesComedy Central
After releasing Hugo in 2011, Martin Scorsese visited the show Comedy Central
Last year, Christopher Walken talked tap dancing on the showComedy Central
Barack Obama appeared on the show in 2005 as a senator, twice in 2008 as a presidential candidate, again in 2010 during his fist term, and finally in 2012 as he ran for a second termComedy Central
First Lady Michelle Obama has appeared twice on the Daily Show, once in 2008 and twice in 2012Comedy Central
During one of Paul Rudd's may appearances on the show, Stewart revealed that the comedian was his first test guest after her took over for Craig KilbornComedy Central
Rachel Maddow was a repeat guest on the show where she described Justice Scalia as a "troll," said she could kill Bin Laden with a spoon and declared she was "embarrassed" by BushComedy Central

Especially in its early years, The Daily Show didn’t just riff on the news and poke fun and roll eyes at the endless spew of stupid and self-serving statements made by celebrities, politicians, and other hucksters. With the help of talented producers, writers, and “correspondents” including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show mimicked perfectly every aspect of network and cable news-gathering. The show was replete with ridiculous camera shots designed to reinforce audience sympathies, godawful banter between host and reporters, even more godawful questioning of people during news segments, and manic graphics that hyped every minor threat as the next great catastrophe facing the planet. And they actually produced stories that were being followed by everyone else in the business. By highlighting how the news is stitched together, The Daily Show helped instill a form of media literacy that is hugely important in a media-saturated age (The Onion provides a similar service for print journalism.)

It’s not surprising that in an age of declining audiences for all forms of TV news, The Daily Show reached and held younger viewers, with 18-29 year olds making up 40% of its audience. By deconstructing the news-delivery process, Stewart and company made it new. A decade ago, when polling data showed that as many young Americans got their news from The Daily Show as from programs like NBC Nightly News, the establishment even copped to be “depressed” by the news. Sadly, broadcast and cable news has done little to rejuvenate its form, determined instead to spend millions of dollars a year on hosts such as Williams, whose honesty and news sense are as sleepy and tired as their program’s elderly audiences.

But somewhere along Jon Stewart’s and The Daily Show’s ascent to legitimacy, awards, and influence, it’s meta-script got more than a little tired. If it once shone a harsh light on how television news skewed its presentations to frighten audiences or pander to power, it eventually succumbed to the same tendencies, especially the sin of self-importance. In a widely celebrated 2004 smackdown of the Punch-and-Judy antics of most cable news debate shows, Stewart accused CNN Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of “partisan hackery…what you do is not honest.” After the hosts pushed back, Stewart bemoaned in a very mean, very funny rant that something was wrong when “news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.”

See Brian Williams Through The Years

Brian Williams Senior Year 1977Mater Dei High School, New Monmouth, NJAs the Editorial Editor for the school newspaperCredit: Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library
Brian Williams was the Editorial Editor for his school newspaper seen here on the far right during his Senior Year at Mater Dei High School in New Monmouth, N.J. in 1977.Seth Poppel—Yearbook Library
From Left: Brian Williams, President George W. Bush and AP writer Glenn Johnson talk aboard Bush's campaign plane in Florence S.C. on Feb. 17, 2000.Reuters
From Left: Brian Williams poses with NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw in New York City prior to Brokaw's last broadcast on Dec. 1, 2004. Richard Drew—AP
Brian Williams during a break in the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" show in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Dwaine Scott—NBC/AP
NBC News
Brian Williams reports from Camp Liberty in Baghdad on March 8, 2007.Jeff Riggins—NBC/Getty Images
Inside the Obama White House: Brian Williams Reports
From Left: President Barack Obama and Brian Williams takes a look at what happens in the White House and the West Wing during a day in the life of the Obama administration on May 29, 2009.Subrata De—NBC/Getty Images
Saturday Night Live
From Left: Amy Poehler, Brian Williams and Seth Meyers on 'Saturday Night LIve' on Nov. 3, 2007.Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 1
Jimmy Fallon and Brian Williams "Slow Jam the News" on 'The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon' on Dec. 2, 2014.Douglas Gorenstein—NBC/Getty Images
"Girls" Season Four Premiere - After Party
From Left: Brian Williams, Allison Williams and Jane Stoddard Williams attend the "Girls" season four series premiere after party at The Museum of Natural History on Jan. 5, 2015.Jamie McCarthy—Getty Images
On Jan, 29, 2015, Brian Williams accompanied Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak, pictured here next to Williams, to a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York City
Brian Williams embraces Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak at a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York on Jan. 29, 2015, where Terpak was honored. Williams admitted to conflating events when describing his experiences in combat with Terpak during the Iraq war. On Feb. 10, he was suspended without pay for six months.James Devaney—GC Images

But Stewart started taking himself too seriously, as if his celebrity meant he did in fact have the sort of social responsibility he specifically abjured on Crossfire. His 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” co-hosted by Stephen Colbert, unironically featured the former Cat Stevens singing “Peace Train” (as the Islamic convert Yusuf Islam, Stevens seemingly endorsed calls for the murder of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses). Worse, it ended in a maudlin plea for peace and tolerance.

In a particularly ridiculous moment from last year, Stewart apologized for saying on CNN (of all places) that he hadn’t voted in the midterm elections. He was “being flip,” he told his own audience later. “It sent a message that I didn’t think voting was important or that I didn’t think it was a big issue. And I do, and I did vote.” Please, when a fake newsman starts thinking his every utterance is being taken seriously and needs to be defended or amended, something has gone very wrong.

Stewart has said that The Daily Show “doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host.” He’s right about that. The show he leaves behind will need to reinvent itself more fundamentally than it might seem at first blush. We all process news very differently now than we did when he first took over hosting duties at The Daily Show. That’s in some large part due to Stewart, which he should take as an incredible compliment and his successor should take as an incredible challenge. The director of last year’s well-received drama, Rosewater, Stewart’s creative future is still ahead of him.

For Brian Williams, a frequent guest on The Daily Show, things aren’t so bright. Even as his entire genre of news was sinking like the Titanic, he decided to go ahead and plunge into oblivion all on his own. In an age of rapidly decentralizing and proliferating media, the one role that needn’t be filled is a newsreader whose every utterance will rightly be questioned.

See Jon Stewart's Career Over the Years

THE DAILY SHOW, 1996-present, Jon Stewart 1999-present
Jon Stewart takes the reins as anchor of The Daily Show in 1999.Comedy Central/Everett
Stewart gets a cameo as Kevin Gerrity in the 1999 Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy.Columbia
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 9
Jay Leno interviews Jon Stewart on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 2000.NBC/Getty Images
Stewart plays Marion Frank Stokes in the 2002 black comedy Death to SmoochyWarner Bros.
55th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room
Jon Stewart and his team win the first of many Emmys for The Daily Show in 2003.Chris Weeks—FilmMagic/Getty Images
The 78th Annual Academy Awards - Jon Stewart Portraits
Jon Stewart hosts the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.Academy of Motion Picture Arts—WireImage/Getty Images
Stewart has a cameo as himself on The Simpsons in 2008 in the episode "E Pluribus Wiggum."Fox
Jon Stewart And Stephen Colbert Hold Rally On National Mall
Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart host the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall on Oct. 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images
US President Barack Obama (L) tapes an i
Jon Stewart interviews President Barack Obama on The Daily Show at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, Oct. 26, 2010.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images
51st USO Armed Forces Gala & Gold Medal Dinner - Inside
Jon Stewart speaks at the 51st USO Armed Forces Gala & Gold Medal Dinner on Dec. 13, 2012 in New York City.Michael Loccisano—Getty Images
ROSEWATER, front, from left: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jon Stewart, on set, 2014. ©Open Road
Stewart makes his directorial debut in the 2014 drama Rosewater.Open Road Films
Jon Stewart announces his retirement for the end of 2015.Comedy Central

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.