Brian Williams: Why Jon Stewart Is Good For News Many journalists have come to think of the comedian as a kind of external standards-and-practices cop -- and one whose nightstick leaves painfully embarrassing welts, says NBC anchor Brian Williams. He explains why no journalist wants to show up on The Daily Show unless he's got a book to promote.
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Brian Williams: Why Jon Stewart Is Good For News

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Brian Williams: Why Jon Stewart Is Good For News

Brian Williams: Why Jon Stewart Is Good For News

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of archival footage)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. President Nixon reportedly will announce his resignation tonight.

RAZ: For decades, Walter Cronkite was the standard for broadcast journalism. And as they wrote their stories, young reporters would often ask themselves: What would Walter think?

Well, today, it's not the memory of Walter Cronkite or even Edward R. Murrow that motivates some reporters. More often, it's a fear that their stories might get picked apart by Jon Stewart.

(Soundbite of television show, "The Daily Show")

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): After Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, attempted to blow up an airliner in 2001, President Bush did not publicly respond for six days and stayed on his vacation. I say this as a means of providing just a slight bit of context to some of the criticism our current president has faced concerning a similar, or some would say, exact same, kind of attack.

Mr. SEAN HANNITY (Host, "Hannity"): For more than three days after the incident, President Obama remained silent.

Unidentified Man: The president waits 72 hours before we hear from him?

RAZ: That's a clip from "The Daily Show" this past week. In a recent article in Newsweek, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams wrote that Jon Stewart is the guy he thinks of when his team considers which stories to air on its nightly newscasts. He asks: Will it pass the Jon Stewart test?

And Brian Williams joins me from the NBC studios in New York.


Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Host, "NBC Nightly News"): I should quickly add: We have another set of standards we put our stories through, but Jon's always in the back of my mind. Thanks for having me.

RAZ: I mean, you write, in this essay in Newsweek, you write: On occasion, when we're been on the cusp of doing something completely inane, I will gently suggest to my colleagues that we simply courier the tape over to Jon Stewart's office to spare "The Daily Show" interns the time and trouble of logging our broadcast that night. How often do you do that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, I think I do it mentally quite a bit. When words are about to pass through your lips that you can envision making a damn fine clip on "The Daily Show" that night, try another chain of words. Try another way of putting it.

And none of this is to give a show on Comedy Central any more weight as a journalistic check and balance. But you know what? It's not a bad thing, because a lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious. They hold people to account for errors and sloppiness.

It's usually delivered with a smile, sometimes not. When and where it gets interesting is when a guy like Jim Cramer came on and really bore the sole brunt of the housing collapse and other ills. That particular night, the parlance in journalism for what happened there is a takedown.

(Soundbite of television show, "The Daily Show")

Mr. STEWART: I understand you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a (BEEP) game.

Mr. JIM CRAMER: Jon, don't you want guys like me, who have been in it, to show the shenanigans? What else can I do? I mean, last night's show...

Mr. STEWART: No, no, no, no, no. I want desperately for that, but I feel like that's not what we're getting. What we're getting is, listen, you knew what the banks were doing and yet were touting it for months and months. The entire network was.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And I think in the days, weeks and months that followed, Cramer was given a little more slack, and Jon was called out for a kind of an attack interview where the odds were stacked against Jim Cramer. But on a night-to-night basis, what Jon does is hold our feet to the fire, we in the news media. It's healthy and helps us that he's out there.

RAZ: Do you think that general reporting has improved because of Jon Stewart's scrutiny?

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's a great question. I think people are more wary. But the fact that "The Daily Show" has no shortage of raw materials with which to put together a broadcast every night shows that there's no shortage of errors and people falling short in their jobs.

RAZ: Brian Williams, as you know, many Americans do not trust, do not like people like you and me. They have a low opinion of journalism in general. Do you think that "The Daily Show" sort of feeds into that negative impression at all?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I guess they do. There's a populism about them, which is kind of clever and crafty and perverse when you think about it, and I would obviously defend their right. I think it's fantastic. I've over and over called it the missing branch of government.

RAZ: I mean, are you ever jealous? Like, do you ever sort of wish you could do some of those things?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I get to get my ya-yas out when I get invited on shows like, you know, Leno and Letterman and, you know, (unintelligible).


Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And I've got to add WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME because they have been nice enough to grill me on stage a few times.

RAZ: Brian Williams, I'm not sure if you know this, but it's actually Jon Stewart's 11th anniversary with the show on Monday. Is there anything you want to say to him on this special occasion?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I looked it up. There's a Hallmark site on the Web, and the appropriate gift for 11 years is a knife. So I'll bring it over to him. I'll present it to him by hand.

No, we are off-camera acquaintances, and when I go on there, I love seeing the posts on the Web: Do you think they were fighting? Williams seems to hate Stewart. And it's always fun to watch the after-action reports, as our friends in the Pentagon call them.

He's a great guy. I hope he keeps doing what he's doing because he has had an effect. And anyone out there that keeps us all on the straight and narrow and policed up I think is doing a good job.

RAZ: That's Brian Williams. He's the managing editor and anchor of the "NBC Nightly News." He joined me from NBC Studios in New York.

Brian Williams, thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

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