Quote of the week: Pesca on Williams, Stewart and the Truth

Mike Pesca hosts The Gist podcast on Slate, one of my favorites. He had this fantastic piece on Wednesday, 2/11 which I transcribed. Fantastic commentary on news, media, entertainment and truth. He hints at narrative fallacy:

A white man in his fifties from NJ who faked news is being pilloried for betraying the audience by making us question our institutions and ask who can we really trust. A white man in his fifties from NJ who faked news is being celebrated for delighting the audience

The difference between Brian Williams and Jon Stewart is the difference between carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. We had two very different contracts with these two men in suits, sitting at desks, reading the news. One of them is a satirist, the other a fatherly figure with an old media, old transportation title: anchor. And from him we want sobriety. These guys who played, at least on air, a version of friends had such similar backgrounds: Jersey upbringings, sports in high school, great communicators.

Stewart, even when he was a stand-up, was best when riffing off of non-fiction. Williams, a truly witty man, an SNL host, reportedly sought out Jay Leno’s old job when he left the tonight show. He could have been locked into the stuffiest straight jacket in America, but he was ready to bust out and be funny.

And I reject by the way the contention that sense of humor is the antithesis of serious or believable: Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill, great wits all. And even newsmen can be funny without losing their gravitas. Walter Cronkite did a guest spot on the Mary Tyler Moore show. For all the tsk’ing this week about how Cronkite wouldn’t have hosted Saturday Night Live. Well, no, you’re right: here was on CBS. Edwin Newman, esteemed NBC newsman, did host Saturday Night Live.

Brian Williams was extremely articulate and that was a key to his appeal and maybe his undoing. I’ve heard it said that in these last few days that he wasn’t so much a journalist as he was a celebrity. One is supposed to be a virtuous pursuit and the other term is dismissive. But think of the overlap. A journalist is a storyteller, at his best a communicator, elements of charisma and a feel for the dramatic play into this. Knowing how to tell an anecdote, maybe even spin a yarn, helped burnish the Williams brand to the point where if Scott Pelley were caught in a lie it would be more confusing, but less of a national scandal.

In fact, right now, under our noses, there is a similar charade being perpetrated apparently some guy David Muir is claiming to be the anchor of ABC World News tonight and no one is even fact checking that claim.

…it is strange how news about journalists doesn’t go under covered. The first is to note that in my experience the closer a news story adheres to the rules of narrative the more you should be suspicious that the events actually transpired as described. I am not just talking about shlocky, obviously manipulative “journalism”. I’m talking about the best journalism. I’m talking about works that have won Pulitzers, the radio shows you love, the non-fiction authors who are the most acclaimed. They’re not lying, but there is a shading. A leaving out of complicating details. A landing on salient points in a way that is satisfying to our species’ desire for linear tales. But antithetical to the messiness of the world.

Secondly it doesn’t surprise me that at the center of this was a war zone exaggeration… war correspondent was a gap in William’s resume before he became an anchor. So it doesn’t surprise me that he’d fill in this gap with such, lets say, abandon. The funny thing about all of this is that anchorman is the ultimate position of illusory importance. When they are on the air they seem so vital to the culture, but when they go away they remembered very little. Peter Jennings died less than ten years ago this summer. Ask a young person if they know who he is. Jennings drew 5 million more viewers a night that Williams does now.

But this satirists. The jesters. They seem to have more staying power. Will Rodgers. Mark Twain. Aristophanes. And now Jon Stewart. None of them really claimed to tell the truth. But of course, they all did.

[transcription by me]

3 Responses to “Quote of the week: Pesca on Williams, Stewart and the Truth”

  1. Elisabeth

    Thanks for transcribing this. Excellent reading.

  2. Sean Crawford

    Thank you Scott.

    Why anchors?

    I once phoned around to various teachers in English and Journalism and Professional Writing at my old community college, now a university. I said the comic book Tales of the script had an anchorperson, that old witch, and the 6 o’clock infotainment has anchormen, but my newspaper does not. Why not?

    Why have anchors for TV? Did you know that TV reporters are trained to not have a lead sentence, not with the five W’s? That is left for the anchor to say. So I phoned around and no one could tell me.

    Much later, I found out—out of the blue—when reading one of Neil Postman’s excellent books. He says the anchor is to give the views a comforting sense of familiarity, of something they can come back to… As for me, I prefer a strong backed chair to a couch. As I see it, having a grown up interest in the news means I want facts not comfort.

  3. Phil Simon

    A landing on salient points in a way that is satisfying to our species’ desire for linear tales. But antithetical to the messiness of the world.



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