Brian Williams: The Entertainer and Profit
Ukraine is fighting a civil war with Russia lurking in the background, Boko Harum is slaughtering millions of people in Nigeria, Greece’s economic depression is threatening the European union, but our lead story is that Brian Williams greatly embellished his ride in a military helicopter during the Iraq War. I’ll grant you that Mr. William’s apology was lame and unsatisfying. (“I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”). It’s also clear from the front pages or home pages of The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Fox News that Mr. Williams told and expanded this story repeatedly over the years. I completely understand that veterans are upset that Mr. Williams was trying to imbue himself with a heroic image. Even if Mr. Williams’s chopper had been hit by enemy fire, his experience wouldn’t compare to the experience of frontline soldiers.
Nonetheless, this story belongs in the entertainment section of your local newspaper or in People magazine. Mr. Williams broadcast of Nightly News is hardly a newscast anymore. A large portion of the show is devoted to inclement weather. Before last week’s snowstorm in New York, viewers were treated to Al Roker standing outside the studio in a 25 miles per hour wind. When the evening telecast isn’t covering the weather, Mr. Williams is cross-promoting NBC’s sponsorship of the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or who will be on the Today Show. The real news about Ukraine, Nigeria, or Greece is confined to about ten minutes, and many of the stories are covered by reporters stationed hundreds of miles away from the actual news event. To be fair to Mr. Williams, ABC and CBS follow the same format.
The New York Times solemnly intoned, “What is clear is that the trustworthiness of one of America’s best-known and most revered TV journalists has been damaged, and that the moral authority of the nightly network news anchor, already diminished in the modern media era, has been dealt another blow.”
The trustworthiness of Mr. Williams and the moral authority of the nightly news anchor died long ago. Today’s news anchor is an accomplished actor who can read from a teleprompter with conviction and then show up with David Letterman or Jon Stewart to burnish his image. If you need any more proof that most of America’s newscasts have been captured by their network’s or newspaper’s entertainment division, just look at how they are covering Brian Williams’s big fib. The story will sell some additional newspapers, create a larger TV audience for a few days, and generate a bunch more clicks, all of which is good for profits and shareholders but not so good for the rest of us.