So let’s throw out the rule book and dream a little. The networks are threatened by a tightening pincer formation, with the partisan combativeness of Fox News on the right and the irreverence of Stewart’s Daily Show on the left. Salvation is usually thought to lie in drifting one way or the other, toward belligerence or gleeful lampoon. But there’s another approach, proposed by, of all people, Jon Stewart while praising, of all things, Fox News. At the recent New Yorker Festival, Stewart admitted he admires Fox—not for its politics but for its purpose. Fox News, he said, knows why it exists.
Couric feels the news. The intended message: She’s just like you! She’s in there dirtying her hands—and her heart.
Do network newscasts know why they exist? When asked what kind of news organization he’d endorse, Stewart proposed something like Fox News but for truth. A surprisingly earnest answer, especially from someone who’s been criticized for sowing snark among the nation’s youth. But the much-cited statistic about young people getting their news from The Daily Show isn’t a condemnation of most young people (as it’s usually framed): It’s a condemnation of available news sources. Simply put, there’s a desire right now for anchors who will call bullshit when bullshit is being served. (You could argue that the American electorate did just that last week at the voting booth.) Or for reporters who, when a candidate like Kerry Healey spins an attack ad by saying, “It’s not a negative ad. It’s negative information,” won’t simply leave it unremarked. Stephen Colbert, a comedian, should not be the only person in the broadcasting universe who, when interviewing a congressman sponsoring a bill promoting the Ten Commandments, asks him if he can list the Ten Commandments. (He couldn’t.) Yet CBS’s big innovation is to showcase blowhards from all points of the compass in its “freeSpeech” segment, which is essentially an all-you-can-eat bullshit buffet.
The shift doesn’t have to be radical; Williams, in particular, seems well suited to call out a newsmaker or two. Half the time he’s already saying it with his eyes. Now he just needs to say it with his mouth. Or take this example: During an ABC story on discord between the White House and the Iraqi prime minister, the P.M. said, “No one can assign timetables,” and Donald Rumsfeld claimed that such schedules “are still in discussions.” ABC then showed earlier clips in which the U.S. ambassador said, “Iraqi leaders have agreed to a timetable,” and President Bush said the Iraqis have “agreed to a schedule.” Add a zippy joke, and this could have been The Daily Show. Add a combative reporter, pointing out the contradictions to Bush, and you’ve got an endlessly replayable YouTube clip, one with a little more bite than “the Google.” Trust me, the kids would be all over it.