This week, journalists have been robbed of a guilty pleasure. In several months, we will no longer wrap ourselves in frayed bathrobes, sip a stiff cup of joe, click on the tablet and enjoy — nay, really savor — watching our profession get lampooned.
Most of us, we’ll quickly add, get our daily dose of Jon Stewart after consuming the news in less comedic ways — online, in print and on our Twitter feeds. (And most of the 2.2 million viewers watch the show the morning after it airs, online or on social media.) But now that the master of the “epic takedown” is set to step down as anchor of The Daily Show, who will make journalists laugh at ourselves? And who, by virtue of his sheer universality, will goad us into being better journalists?
Oh, sure, sure. Some of us take contumacious pleasure in seeing Stewart skewer politicians whom we cannot because doctrines of journalistic fairness and balance forbid it.
As Stewart told PBS’s Bill Moyers in 2003, four years after becoming Daily anchor:
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ll run into a journalist and go, ‘Boy, that’s . . . I wish we could be saying that. That’s exactly the way we see it and that’s exactly the way we’d like to be saying that.’ And I always think, ‘Well, why don’t you?'”
I stood in class Wednesday morning and wrote two words on the dry board: ”Truth” and “Fairness.” I’ve done this time and time again over the many semesters I’ve taught college journalism.
“These two principles are what guide you,” I told the reporting class at Ohio State University. “More than anything, this is what the public expects of you. It’s what you owe them.
“You see,” I punched up the point, “when someone picks up the paper and reads your byline, sees you on TV, hears your voice on the radio or reviews your work online, they want to know two things: Are you telling them the truth and are you being fair in your presentation of the facts? That’s what makes you a commodity in journalism, it’s your integrity and the trust people put in you. Without your honesty and their trust you have nothing. Don’t let them down.”
Today, I walked back into the same classroom, in front of the same students and rewrote those same two words on the board.
“Sometimes real life serves as the best lab, the best teaching experience,” I started. “Today Brian Williams is asking himself if he can stand before millions or just one person and be believable and perceived as fair after the revelations involving his 2003 reporting from Iraq.”
Today is a bleak day for Williams, NBC and the journalism profession, not just for what he did or didn’t do, but because we all carry that same mantle of responsibility to truth and fairness. That starts at levels as high as NBC and trickles down to journalism students, catching everyone along the way.