Brian Williams Is Not Alone

Looking good! (Image courtesy Wikicommons.)

Many years ago, I was a producer at the network news.

One of the three big networks. And on one of their flagship shows.

It was a big job. I was young and it looked like my career in television journalism was on the fast track to major success. (Being a producer at the network was already pretty good!)

Before that, I had been a producer at PBS -- WNET/13 to be exact. We didn't have on-air "talent." As a producer at PBS, I did all the research, wrote all the scripts, sat in and directed all the edits and won all the Emmys. There were a lot of them. (That's how I got picked up by the Network!)

But when I got to the network, it was all different.

I still did all the research, went out and directed all the shoots, conducted many of the interviews, wrote all the scripts and sat in on all the edits. What I didn't do was voice the scripts, appear on camera or win the awards. That was the job of the "talent."

These people were (and are), the "face" of the network news operation. They are, like Brian Williams, what we would call '"good TV." They look good on camera. They are "believable," (in quotes for a reason). They are the "talent." The producers are, for the most part, the real journalists. They do all the hard work -- the reporting, the writing, the travel, the fact checking... on and on...

But you don't see them on air.

Most of them would be what we would call "bad television."

In other words, they look like 99 percent of us, with all our flaws. But these are the people who actually do most of the reporting. You just never see them. If you know where to look, you can see their names in the credits. (If you look even harder, you can see the names of the editors and the camera people -- but you really have to know where to look!)

It's a strange system, this producer system, where one person does the lion's share of the work and the other person takes the lion's share of the credit (and the money!). But I suppose it is the only way that the talent can deliver enough content to justify their massive salaries. Some of these stories take weeks, if not months to put together. Good journalism takes time. So you can't have your high plaid talent vanish for weeks or even months on end to produce just one great piece. So you have producers who do the ground work. When the story is ready, the talent generally flies in, is shot into the piece and then vanishes while the producer finishes up.

I cannot tell you how many times that happened to me. It happens to everyone. And every producer, no matter what network, can tell you their own horror stories. Here is one that happened to me:

I was assigned to do a story in Buffalo, New York. It was January and I was pretty far along setting it up when I got a call from the famous on air "talent."

"I don't do Buffalo in the winter," he announced to me.

"You don't? But that's where the story is," I said.

"Well, here is what you are going to do," he retorted. "You are going to book me in for a week at the Coral Gables Golf and Tennis Club, and then you are going to find me a story in Miami."

And he hung up the phone.

And do you know what? A few weeks later we were busy shooting a story all about the Miami school system.

That's journalism for you.

A few months later, at an awards ceremony, a "talent" I worked with stood up and accepted his Emmy for Television Journalism. "I want to thank all the people who worked on this," he said, smiling at the cameras.

A week later, I quit.

I bought myself a small video camera, headed off to the Gaza Strip, lived with a family in the Jabalya Refugee Camp for a month, shot video every day and came back and delivered two stories to the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. No "talent" needed. By doing that, I launched my career, and to some extent, the whole profession of the "Video Journalist".

I never looked back.

Until now.

It's not Brian Williams' fault. He was asked to do something he was not equipped to do -- journalism. He wasn't a journalist. He was a great on air talent. That is no crime. He reads the news great -- just like many of the others. He looks good on air. That's important, too.

NBC (and the rest of the industry) would do themselves a favor just by being honest with the public. Here are the folks that do the reporting -- and HERE is our newsreader. Charming, entertaining -- and a great reader.

Let's not confuse the two.

And now... the news.