While NBC throws Brian Williams under the bus, the network may be as guilty as Brian Williams for creating his brand and persona in the first place.
His is a well-worn path of success and implosion of journalists before him, most memorably Dan Rather, but such failures are not limited to one journalist, one network or even one medium.
The six-month suspension without pay for Williams amounts to a loss of some $5 million in personal income. Of course, NBC has launched an investigation of all Williams' journalism, and Williams did apologize -- sort of. His tone was full of hubris.
Still, the fact is people crave legitimate news and want someone -- anyone -- to voice the truth. As Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., pointed out recently, muckraker Nellie Bly, Williams is not. While Bly focused on the people she wrote about, Williams' stories have often been about himself.
As a young print reporter in the '80s and '90s, I was decidedly unimpressed by most people I knew who were aspiring to be in TV news.
I dug into detailed and nuanced stories while they appeared to care mainly about their makeup, hair and clothes. They nodded vacantly at cameras for B-roll, pretending to be deep in thought.
At press conferences, they trampled over me and shoved me out of the way to get a better position for audio and video recording.
Now I know that this behavior -- even the lack of courtesy sometimes -- is part of their jobs of pursuing news.
Lying and cheating is not. Last week, anchor Williams confirmed some of the worst stereotypes about TV journalism that I had felt as a cub reporter. His biggest problem is he appeared to believe the larger-than-life visions of himself that NBC used to promote his broadcasts. He believed his own press, so to speak, and his public persona went straight to his head. Was that why his memory became so foggy?
Williams is the latest anchor to fall, after he allegedly "misremembered" key details while covering some of the biggest stories of our time, including Hurricane Katrina's death toll in the French Quarter and whether his helicopter or another was shot down during the Invasion of Iraq. Military people had scoffed at his war whoppers for years.
One of the most trusted anchors in America?
Not anymore. Trust is hard to achieve and harder to keep. Belief in his credibility plummeted from the 23rd most trusted person in the nation to the 835th.
This news added to the sense that traditional media have become more and more irrelevant.
Shows like the Today Show, NBC Nightly News and Meet the Press are no longer the standard-bearers of truth they once were.
But this is no change. That would only be the case if there were universal belief in the media in the first place or if everyone were still watching the same broadcast at the same time. I have a news flash for NBC. The Vietnam War is over and JFK is still dead.
My graduate education in communication at UC-San Diego made it clear that TV news was often so constructed as to be unbelievable. With construction, non-fiction can come dangerously close to fiction.
Is it possible that in this post-post-post Watergate society that the American public is reeling from a sense of lost trust? Not likely. Did the helicopter Williams was riding in actually ever get shot down by an RPG in 2003? I hope most viewers saw that this type of self-aggrandized reporting was not reporting at all but pure advertising.
Williams' admissions are sad for anyone who still believes in journalism and what it can be. I understand why many people have turned away from the evening news and the controversy over Williams' exaggerated reports just exacerbate the distrust many already feel. So many might not have believed in Williams to begin with. He is not Walter Cronkite or Edward R Murrow. The best that can be said of him is he figured out how to win popularity and the veneer of credibility the same way TV's Greg Brady figured out how to "fit the suit" when he was trying to be rock star Johnny Bravo so many years ago. Oh, but that was Barry Williams, not Brian Williams.
Did Brian Williams ever watch a body floating by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where he was staying in the French Quarter during Hurricane Katrina? It might have happened, right? Not.
How much does this story matter?
One can always ignore the realities of declining TV viewers and continue to live in a mythological world of brave broadcast anchors that stare death in the face every day so you don't have to yourself. Here's a promo ad for Williams.
As the late-night comedians have pointed out mercilessly, it is usually the real soldiers who take home Purple Hearts, not the press. Most people today view Jon Stewart as the real news anchor they most trust. Let us not lose sight of this fact.
There are still real journalists in the world. Like most in the military, they do their jobs and get slammed, beaten up, or even die for the privilege. Brian Williams should have known this, but must have um... misremembered.
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