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February 12, 2015

Like many other observers I found it a delicious irony that Jon Stewart and Brian Williams both stepped down from their media perches on the same day. The page one headline in the New York Times said it all: “Williams Suspended, at Low Point in His Career; Stewart to Depart at High Point.”

Stewart indeed provided entertainment while also bringing a dose of truth to the real news by exploiting his own fake news. He deserves the praise, though my mind turns to a very thoughtful Boston Globe opinion piece on Stephen Colbert’s departure from his show, written by Steve Almond. His piece, Stephen Colbert’s show was prophesied,  relied on the insights of the late Neil Postman’s book about the culture of television Amusing Ourselves to Death (and got me to go re-read Postman). To boil it down, television requires entertainment in a limited rigorous time frame, not serious thought and discussion. That is not at all conducive to democratic deliberation.

The Postman book is in line with my reading of the political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, who also found the business needs of television crowding out what is needed for democratic deliberation. McWilliams and Postman were both highly critical of political communications via the thirty second advertisement or even the serious news show production.  

I felt the import of McWilliams’s and Postman’s critiques in the recent campaign. During one of the Coakley-Baker debates last fall, the moderator announced a format of “one on one, Lincoln-Douglas style. Each candidate will have thirty seconds to ask their opponent the question, you have one minute to answer, and then there will be thirty seconds for rebuttal.” While viewers might have been impressed with the seriousness of the Lincoln-Douglas format, it wasn’t what Lincoln and Douglas did in their seven debates at all. Rather each of their debates began with an hour opening, an hour and a half response, and a half hour of rebuttal. Attendees followed complex expository arguments, and had to be familiar with the issues of the campaign in order to follow Lincoln and Douglas.

No, that doesn’t sound like a televised debate. Lincoln and Douglas might bore the audience, and that is one thing television cannot abide.

It was apparently the urge to entertain that led to some of Williams problems. The revenues produced by his persona also led to an internal effort to save him. According to “NBC Opens Probe of Williams” in the February 7 Wall St. Journal, NBC told news staffers that the unit must support Williams. This “didn’t sit well with some of the NBC News staff, who grumbled that they would have been fired for a similar offense.” However, the Williams newscast brought in $148 million in revenues in the first nine months of 2014, well ahead of the other broadcast networks. Man the bunkers.

At least Stewart openly acknowledged he was presenting made up news. In his take on the downfall of the NBC anchor Stewart hilariously skewered Williams’s false account of coming under fire in Iraq: “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” This same point was made in great detail by Bill Moyers in “Selling the War.” Stewart's line was comical, it was true. As another president seeks another congressional resolution for military action in the Middle East, we are left to wonder if the "serious" press will do any better of a job in examining his case for war.

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