Brian Williams, Jon Stewart and the Shifting Media Landscape

By Ryan Lilly

Since the time that I was in college, people have been talking about the “death” of print journalism and the shifting media landscape. We talked about it so much in fact, that my then journalism-major girlfriend wound up becoming my lawyer fiancé. Between a PR pro and a lawyer, I’m not sure which side of our union best represents the “dark side” – but I digress. Recent weeks have seen two more major fluctuations in the already unstable ground that is journalism in the modern age.

Longtime newsman and benchmark journalist, Brian Williams, has been suspended from the NBC Nightly News for concocting a fictional story that he was in a helicopter that was hit by ground fire in Iraq in 2003. Almost simultaneously, Jon Stewart announced his resignation from the Daily Show, Comedy Central’s satirical take on mainstream news reporting. At a glance, these two sound like journalists at opposite ends of the spectrum, however, many Americans actually hold Stewart and Williams in similar regard when it comes to journalistic integrity and admiration. At least they did in a 2008 PEW Research report. Things have likely shifted even more in Stewart’s favor in recent weeks.

Many have even begun to speculate that Jon Stewart is the natural choice to fill Williams’s seat. I don’t know if this will happen, but the fact that publications like the Washington Post would even suggest such a departure from the traditional tenets of journalism, says quite a bit about the media today.

In a world where the lines are blurring between satire and national network news, where do we draw the lines between PR pros and journalists? I would posit that PR pros are, in many ways, parallel to Jon Stewart in this regard. For many editors or producers, we are quickly becoming a really viable source for quality news. The best PR pros are evolving from “flacks” to multifaceted experts, respected for our knowledge and availability. That’s right, I said availability – newsrooms are shrinking and journalists simply aren’t available to write every story.

In today’s media landscape, information is regarded as information regardless of the whether it comes from a three-piece suit and haircut, a health IT blogger, a mommy blogger, some guy on Twitter or a PR pro. You may not know it, but that recent op-ed that you read in the New York Times from the CEO of X company was most likely written by a PR pro. The old guard in journalism is evolving or they are dying out, and it is our job as PR people to evolve right alongside them or risk the same fate.

I always say that the best PR people know enough to be dangerous around a lot of issues and industries. With the new dual role of journalist and PR pro comes quite a bit of responsibility. Not only must we deliver our client’s messages, we must deliver them in a way that engages and educates beyond just products or sales. In our new hybrid roles, we must become creators of content that is worthwhile and engaging, without making things up of course…cough. Also a little humor never hurts, just ask Jon Stewart.