Like so many others, I was saddened to hear that Jon Stewart plans on retiring from hosting the Daily Show later this year. What I will miss the most is the light he shone on the way the news stories can be distorted. Stewart’s analysis of news reports is a sorely needed skill in an age of information overload.
On the same day that news about Stewart’s retirement broke, we heard about Brian Williams’ six-month suspension from NBC’s Nightly News. I found myself wondering what would happen to the state of television if everyone who had ever overstated something for the sake of capturing and keeping the attention of the public was similarly suspended.
It’s easy to shame Williams. But perhaps we should apply some of analysis Stewart applies on his show to this situation. But maybe we hesitate to do so because while we can’t absolve Williams of all blame, we just might notice that we are also at fault.
More specifically, our obsession with free content, combined with the availability of an inordinate amount of information, is at fault. The competition for eyeballs (and, therefore, ad money) has shifted priority from deep analysis and reports that can take days to put together to quick turnaround and shock value. The consequences of our obsession with free content, therefore, is that there is less time to fact check and analyse as energy is put into finding attention-grabbing stories.
A lot of ink has flowed on the topic of how newspapers are struggling and the implications of independently run ones shutting down or being acquired by private owners; as the people on top of that pyramid deal with their areas of expertise, we, the public, have to deal with our own. What are the implications of our addiction to free content? What are we encouraging by reading quick news and focusing on stories that hit our “shock-value” button? When we choose to read a free short piece that gives us only the bare bones rather than a well thought out piece on the same topic that is available for a price, are we encouraging journalistic integrity? Could it be that our focus on acquiring free content, when we can afford to pay for it, has contributed to pulling us in this rather uncomfortable place?
Although it was wrong for him to lie, I don’t blame Brian Williams for what he did. To do so would be too simplistic. We all have to take responsibility for our decisions as consumers. Where we place (or don’t place) our dollars makes a difference. Hopefully those of us who have grown up watching Stewart at the helm of The Daily Show will feel empowered to go beyond the news we are being fed to understand the real forces in society that are acting on us, and be courageous enough to make the decisions that are needed to build a source of reliable information.
Photo Credit: The New York Times.