The sanctimonious uproar over the horrific “Brian Williams scandal” gets more ludicrous by the day. There are more new stories emerging about his tall tales than people accusing Bill Cosby of something. Williams, like Cosby before him, appears to be taking a hard fall and no one seems willing to come along and help him out.
My thinking is that Brian Williams is mostly guilty about being a part of a grand scheme to take “news” and make it into entertainment. The golden days of guys like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are long gone. If you are like me you have long ago given up the notion of getting “hard news” on nightly broadcasts – the fluff and puff are obvious, the filtering and pandering apparent, and the talking head as movie star material is lamentable.
I used to think if Mr. Williams were British and could act that he would have made a great James Bond. He has that look about him, and then we find out that his embellishing of stories could be said to border on acting, and apparently he was rather good at it. He seemed to have the credibility factor locked in, so we were open to believing in him and what he said. That isn’t his fault but our own. We want to feel like we know these people on TV, we want to like them, and it is clear people really liked Williams.
Having all those things going for him, Williams should have been in the clear; however, his tall tales were eventually going to get fact checked. My goal here is not to go into them in detail; enough people have done that already; however, I suspect that Mr. Williams is not alone in his ability to enhance the danger of a situation, the drama of a reporting moment, and in that we have to look at the motivation for Williams and other reporters to do so.
Anyone who has seen CNN’s Anderson Cooper holding on to a lamppost as a hurricane blew rain and debris all around him has to know what I’m talking about. Now you may have asked yourself (as have I), why Cooper and many other reporters would put themselves in such situations. The answer is something that we aren’t going to like – they are doing it because we want and expect it!
Even your local humble reporters on TV are out there in zero degrees covered with ice and snow as they report on conditions during a blizzard. Why do they do that? Because the viewer at home, warm and snug and watching, will only keep watching if he or she sees how bad things are and wants to know if it will get worse. People get vicarious delight in seeing these reporters exposed to the elements, suffering for their art as it were, to keep everyone at home safe.
We have come to this sorry state of affairs as we are inundated with reality TV – which is neither real nor television in my mind. Just as “news” seems to be no longer true and unbiased reportage, but rather repackaged to come at you as entertainment to keep you from changing the channels. You have to like the guys and gals speaking, right? You have to imagine that they like you too, and no one wants to listen to a crusty and unattractive anchor droning on about facts and figures anyway. Of course, not!
Brian Williams is charismatic, handsome, and extremely affable. I have seen him on talk shows, and he is warm, friendly, and genuine. He also comes across as a regular joe, the kind of fellow you could go out with and have a beer or two. Until all this came out, I bet many guys would have loved to watch the Super Bowl with Williams, and the female viewers would have had no qualms about him bringing them roses and taking them out to dinner.
Williams was a bankable star. This is what we have come to – news as commodity. The bottom line is always the bottom line. Williams was good for his employers, and since he has been off the air NBC Nightly News has taken a big ratings hit. Losing viewers is bad for business, and so that should be a warning for all networks and their reporters and anchors who may also be prone to embellishments in their stories.
Iconic late night host David Letterman may have the best perspective on Williams in terms of facing up to the “truth” of the situation. Letterman said,
“He (Williams) says millions and millions and millions of things every day on the little nightly news show over there so occasionally some of them have to be re-jiggered. … They should just put at the end of the (newscast): ‘Some of what Brian says may not be true.’ Not that big a deal; I don’t care. You like seeing him when he comes on here.”
And yes, the audience always liked Williams on Letterman, on his nightly broadcast, and wherever else he appeared. Williams was and is a highly likeable person. Perhaps (just as with Bill Cosby) the fall is even harder and more difficult to accept when the person has been so well liked for so long. The public cannot process or fathom how that can happen, but in the end we only have ourselves to blame.
I am all for the truth in news but that seems to be the same as wishing “reality” and “television” were never mentioned in the same breath. Brian Williams was an extremely lucrative product until he made the mistake that many people are guilty of making. We make it home through the blizzard, and it’s human nature to exaggerate a bit about how difficult the journey was for us. It’s normal behavior for most people but, when millions of people are watching, the stakes are exceedingly higher.
Just as Marc Antony with Julius Caesar, I am not here to bury Brian Williams nor praise him; rather, I am saying that he is not any better or worse than everyone else on TV news who shoot for the entertainment factor. In the end Williams may return to his broadcasting duties; and, if he does, he will be a little tarnished and contrite. He will look at the cameras, make his apology, and we will all believe him because that’s what we want to believe.
Perhaps when the dust settles we will all see this as TV new business as usual, and that is what has been happening for a long time, since after Cronkite retired and Dan Rather slipped into his “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” mode. Either way we should face an inconvenient truth – TV news is no longer the indisputable source of current events and it never will be again. Brian Williams is not responsible for that – we the viewers are!
Photo credits: Wikipedia, muppets.wikia.com, poptower.com
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Thank you for an excellent article. Finally! An article that is objective. I’d also like to point something else out. While Brian Williams may have embellished stories, they were stories about himself. He did not inaccurately report the news. For this, I can forgive him. If he distorted the news or did not meticulously fact check his news that would have been a different story. Here is case in point.
Earlier this morning I read an article that referred to Brian Williams reporting from Hoffman’s Ice Cream in Point Pleasant, NJ soon after Sandy struck. In the newscast Brian Williams looked into the window lamenting about the flood damage that occurred there. The reporter in today’s column referred to this newscast as another example of how Brian lies because Hoffman’s was not flooded and neither was the area of Pt. Pleasant where Hoffman’s is located. The reported claims to know this as fact because he spoke to employees of Hoffman’s and neighbors. Well, here’s the rub. This report did NOT do a thorough job of checking his facts out. Had he extended himself further in his inquiry he would have learned more and perhaps written a column of a different tone. At least Brian always has his news fact straight. Here’s why I say this..
I have a house down there. Was the specific building in which Hoffman’s Ice Cream is located flooded? Maybe not. Was it closed after Sandy? Yes. But the reporter makes no mention of this in his article. Was there flooding in that general area? Maybe not exactly where Hoffman’s is . . . but yes there was in the area. Were there other businesses seriously affected by the storm? Absolutely. Maybe not by flooding, but they lost electricity and use of their computers and were not able to open for days. Was there business affected by Sandy? Yes.. yes . . .yes. Did these business owners feel a sense of disaster? Absolutely.
Everyone did down there. It was horrible. It was like a war zone. The feeling that Brian conveyed in his newscast so well captured the feeling of the area. We lost our bakery for over a year. Some businesses never recovered. Police stations were completely devastated. Places that you took forgranted, that were part of the fiber of life there were suddenly not.
News crews at the time were NOT permitted near the areas where the flooding was disastrous. Did we know Hoffman’s wasn’t flooded? Of course. But that wasn’t as important as Brian Williams’ understanding and capturing and adeptly conveying the emotions that were felt by so many at the time. From that standpoint, he was right on target. And his stories about himself in the news is about reporting the emotional climate at the time.
You may disagree with this. And if you do, please write the executives of the networks you watch. Write the executives of the newspapers you read. Change the climate. And if you are going to go after reporters, how about going after all reporters but please include those who don’t check out their news facts as Brian Williams does.
I hope Brian Williams comes back. I will watch him. And I hope it will serve a positive purpose . . . one that the entire industry learns from . . . and not by punishing a single individual.
Sometimes fiction can convey truth better than facts.
Thanks for the comment (which in essence should be a post in and of itself). I think we have to look at what is “news” and how the reporter can tell about the facts or embellish them. I’d say many reporters want to make stories where there are none; however, as you noted, Mr. Williams chose to embellish tales about himself, while not commendable, it’s not really condemnable either.