Williams fared better at "Saturday Night Live," successfully showing off his lighter side. But, as with Russert's stunt, it was another naked attempt by NBC to lure younger viewers back to real news. Indeed, while the network news broadcasts are sustained by the consumers of denture cream, adult diapers and pharmacological marital aides, it's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" that have a grip on the hip, iPhone crowd. And plenty of those younger viewers seem to believe that they can deduce what's going on in the real world from jokes on a fake newscast. It's no longer funny because it's true. It's true because it's funny.
Now that's begging the question.
The problem of parsing fact from fiction, news from entertainment, has been inherent to broadcast journalism from the beginning. Radio newsman Walter Winchell got his start in vaudeville. But in the modern era, I blame "Murphy Brown," the show about a fictional TV newswoman who talked about real newsmakers as if they were characters on her sitcom. When Brown had a baby out of wedlock, Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the writers of the show. Liberals then reacted as though Quayle had insulted a real person - and so did the fictional Brown, whining about how she'd been personally attacked. Ever since, journalists and politicians have been playing themselves in movies and TV series, perhaps trying to disprove the cliche that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.
TV news is, and always has been, the shallowest branch of journalism. This is why TV journalism in particular operates like a trade guild - not because it's so hard to do but because it's so easy. (The Brits call their anchors "news readers" for a reason.) For instance, in 2000, Sam Donaldson led a successful internal revolt over a plan to have Leonardo DiCaprio interview President Clinton for ABC News. The essence of the complaint was that viewers wouldn't be able to tell the difference between DiCaprio and a "real" TV reporter. Let's face it, that's true. Even DiCaprio can read questions off an index card or teleprompter.
"Yes, it's a changed business," Donaldson said at the time, "and we ought to recognize that. But we also all have to recognize that we have to do things according to the standards that will help us retain our credibility."
I think Donaldson was right, but I also don't mind that TV news is trying to be relevant to viewers not on the AARP's mailing list. What I do find dismaying is that "relevance" is literally coming at the expense of reality.
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