Fox News host Bill O'Reilly is denouncing a Mother Jones story that charges he has his own Brian Williams problem. The magazine accuses O'Reilly of making false claims about his reporting on the Falklands war in 1982, which O'Reilly calls "garbage."
I expect we'll be seeing a spate of articles accusing highly paid news personalities of distorting their careers. It seems increasingly clear that Brian Williams valued a good story over the facts and will have a difficult time returning to his NBC news desk. But let's remind ourselves that Williams didn't get that chair because he was a great reporter -- he made $10 million a year because of his ability to read a teleprompter well and connect with viewers.
Before becoming NBC's evening news anchor, Williams spent more than seven years hosting a nightly newscast on CNBC and MSNBC. Most of his time was spent inside a former cat food warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. I worked as a copy editor at MSNBC during several of those years, and it was a grind. The teams that generate a nightly newscast have a very different job from those reporting from the field. It's all about packaging, not digging up information. I left MSNBC after we were given a mandate of running a JonBenét Ramsey story every day, regardless of whether there was anything new to report. Williams never would have spent all that time in Secaucus without expecting he would wind up in Tom Brokaw's chair at 30 Rock.
How much better it would have been for Williams if he had spent those years as a full-time reporter in the field. Sure, anchors fly in for big stories, but how can we expect them to report on the world accurately when most of their time is spent in a comfortable bubble of skimming the wires and leading editorial meetings? The anchor is the sun every newscast team revolves around.
For example, Williams liked the studio so cold that whenever I worked on his show, I wore gloves with the tips of the fingers cut out for typing. Maybe having to deal with the humidity of New Orleans was why Williams talked about bodies and food shortages no one else covering Hurricane Katrina manage d to notice.
Three months ago, NBC celebrated Williams' ten years as its main nightly news anchor with "a look back at the many stories he's covered and some of our favorite moments." The highlights are:
1. William's first night, in which he thanks Tom Brokaw in a way that makes it sounds as if Brokaw handpicked Williams as his successor.
2. Hurricane Katrina.
3. Apologizing for NBC forgetting to put New Hampshire on a U.S. map.
4. "Brian Williams Stays Cool during a Fire Alarm" -- the caption says it all.
Only one of these "highlights" has anything to do with reporting and Williams' tales from Katrina are now suspect.
Both Williams and O'Reilly have been successful because of personalities that attract viewers and ratings, not because of how close they may or may not have gotten to actual combat. Look at the best war correspondent of our time -- Christiane Amanpour. She was never able to translate her success in the field into big ratings as an anchor. The best reporters don't put themselves at the center of a story, but that almost seems to be a requirement for a successful anchor.
If we followed the British model of calling Brian Williams a newsreader rather than an anchor, perhaps we wouldn't be quite so hard on him now. He's an intelligent, quick-witted man who did a superb job of telling the news. I would love to see NBC use the $5 million it's docking Williams to hire more field reporters and producers.
But there's no chance of that happening. We live in a world where we lavishly reward the men and women who sit behind a desk and attract viewers, just so long as they maintain the illusion of also being great journalists.