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Jon Stewart, Brian Williams and the Twilight of the Evening Stars

8 minute read

On Feb. 10, we learned that one of the most respected voices in the media would be leaving his anchor desk, as would one of TV’s biggest celebrities known for jokes and fake news. That it is not immediately apparent which part of that sentence refers to Jon Stewart and which to Brian Williams tells you all you need to know about status, authority and trust in the media today.

Stewart’s and Williams’ careers had long seemed connected. They were two self-deprecating guys from Jersey who wore suits, sat at desks and talked about the news. Stewart was a comic who developed a surprising authority commenting on serious events. Williams was a serious journalist who developed a surprising ability to disarm audiences on sitcoms and talk shows, Stewart’s included.

Their paths converged, then diverged. Stewart, at the height of his career, announced that later this year he would leave The Daily Show, which he’d hosted since 1999. Williams, at a low point, accepted a six-month suspension without pay from NBC Nightly News after he was called out for falsely claiming, on air, that a helicopter he’d flown on in Iraq had been shot down by an RPG.

But even before that, the two men’s careers made a case study in the alliance between news and entertainment and in how cultural power had shifted from voice-of-God superstar anchors to a new kind of truth teller.

Williams’ rise and downfall sum up the contradictions built into the term anchor, perhaps the most unglamorous title ever given to a glamour job. A ship’s anchor, after all, does its job under the surface, unnoticed. A news anchor’s job is to ride astride the prow of the network’s flagship and be seen. And Williams was the best of his generation at being visible, before he came unmoored.

Williams cracked wise on 30 Rock and hosted Saturday Night Live. He slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon and was a favorite of David Letterman. A New York magazine profile celebrated his “comic stylings.” He was as smooth on the couch as at the desk–quick, sly, terrific timing, could tell a story.

One story he told more than most. In 2003, he reported accurately on NBC that he’d been on a helicopter flying considerably behind one that had been shot down. But the tale got taller over time, until on Nightly News itself, Williams reported attending a New York Rangers hockey game with a soldier whom he credited with saving his life when Williams’ chopper was hit. Soldiers who were there in 2003 called him out on Facebook, investigations ensued, and NBC suspended Williams, replacing him temporarily with understudy Lester Holt.

It’s an open question if Williams will really be able to walk back into the job come August. But whether he does or not, Williams is probably the last of his breed of celebrity anchor we’ll see on an evening newscast–for reasons that have nothing to do with whose helicopter got shot when and everything to do with the pitiless warfare of business.

Dinnertime news shows no longer have cultural primacy. (Thank Stewart for that.) They don’t have the same power to drive the news cycle. (That’s cable news and the Internet.) Above all, they don’t have the money, which has flowed to morning shows. In 2013, NBC’s Today alone generated more ad revenue than all three big-network newscasts combined.

Splashing out to put a big name in the 6:30 chair is a quaint remnant of a big-media, big-money past. In 2011, CBS replaced Katie Couric–then the priciest anchor, at $15 million per annum–with the sturdy (and cheaper) Scott Pelley. Last year, when Diane Sawyer left World News Tonight, ABC tapped David Muir–an honor for him but also an admission that George Stephanopoulos (who got the title “chief anchor”) was too valuable to take away from Good Morning America and This Week.

Even Williams was a kind of postanchor anchor, building his celebrity largely outside the Nightly News itself. His brand wasn’t based on gravitas so much as wit and charm. Ironically, that likability was more important to his image than being seen as a death-defying correspondent, making his unforced error all the more perplexing.

I don’t buy the puritanical suggestion that the siren call of fame tempted Williams into mendacity. You can be an entertaining character and a substantive truth teller–case in point, Jon Stewart. When he announced that he was stepping down, that was the anchor change that really felt epochal, like losing Carson and Cronkite at the same time.

Stewart can demur as much as he wants that he’s just a comedian. We all saw through that joke. Since taking over from Craig Kilborn, whose Daily Show was a shallower, snarky news parody, he became the most loyally followed voice in late-night comedy and news alike.

And he earned it. So he was a fake anchor: his commentary was a kind of journalism nonetheless. The Daily Show really came into its own with the same story that set up Williams’ downfall, the Iraq War–or, as The Daily Show branded it, “Mess O’Potamia.” As WMDs failed to materialize, as the facts that built the case for war proved less than factual, Stewart and company hit a theme that later resonated in Katrina and the financial collapse: Maybe the traditional authorities and experts don’t really know what they’re doing. Maybe the press that was meant to put a check on them has stopped checking. Maybe someone needs to stand athwart history and declare, “This is BS.”

A big part of that critique undermined the authority of media, including real news anchors. The Daily Show used satire and exhaustive research of video clips to break down manias stretching from Bush v. Gore to Ebola. Any honest media critic knew that Stewart was doing the job better than the rest of us. His show turned TV’s own tools and language against it to spotlight buffoonery and bad faith, hot air and hypocrisy. Do that in print and you’re an op-ed columnist. Stewart and his writers simply managed to find a format that people paid attention to.

And pay attention they did. Stewart came out on top of a 2009 Time online poll asking who was the most trusted newscaster in America after the death of Cronkite, and young viewers in particular cited The Daily Show as a top source of information.

Stewart repaid the affection by caring. In a famous 2004 Crossfire appearance, he begged the hosts of the CNN shout show to stop “hurting America.” (It is a fitting send-off to Stewart that before he left, he got to see that show die not once but twice.) His 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity was passionate about Stewart’s belief, usually frustrated by actual politics, that you could appeal to people’s reason and sense of comity. And sometimes the show effected real change, as when he made a cause célèbre of a health bill to support 9/11 first responders, after it had been stymied in Congress. Stewart was an eye roller, not a fist shaker. But when he winced, he winced with feeling.

Stewart would be the first to protest being put on Williams’ level. Indeed, on a recent episode, he half-defended his friend for being hounded over his embellishments: “Never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual f-cking war.” (That Williams was a general in that very media in 2003, Stewart tactfully elided.)

But the anchor’s ship has sailed anyway; the nature of authority has changed. It’s not about a father figure telling you, “That’s the way it was” but a sardonic uncle saying, “Here’s how they get you to perceive this as the way it was.” It values integrity over objectivity, passion over neutrality, truth telling over fact imparting.

The death of the anchor is in part the death of the mass audience and cultural common ground. But it may be a good thing. The anchor job has always been built on a myth larger than any war story: that news hosts were journalistic superbeings, dashing, daring and deserving of unswerving trust. Williams and Stewart have one last thing in common. They helped us let go of that illusion, in a sad week for the news, be it real or fake.

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