Brian Williams has no business embellishing his experiences reporting from the field. In falsely claiming his helicopter was hit by RPG fire, he made himself a hero and the story at the expense of the servicemen and women who fought an unpopular war, often times serving several tours. As is the case with many politicians who are war hawks, if the NBC newsman had served in the military, perhaps he would have resisted the temptation to spin his own war story. Still, I've been taken aback by the hypocrisy of those who are piling on, especially those who call themselves journalists (when in fact, they're entertainers or "suits"). These people hurling stones from high places are central to the culture that created the Brian Williams Media Monster.
Before coming to Washington, D.C., I came up as a local reporter through two Texas markets and Rhode Island. Veteran reporters and cameramen always warned:
We report the story. Never become the story.
This is yet one more reason why William's "misremembering" (in PR spin-ese) is a significant professional and ethical breach. But so is no one at 30 Rock reeling him in. The institutional silence is a sign of a deeper structural and cultural problem: his deification by a chorus of executives and producers, the latter who are supposed to work with a trained critical eye. This institutional #fail comes when broadcast news has transitioned to entertainment, with Brian Williams to date its biggest star and now emblematic victim.
Talent executives and producers who a final candidate meets during round robin interviews talk a good game when it comes to journalism. But even during the glory days of Edward R. Murrow with his dashing looks, TV news has always been more blow-dried Barbie and Ken than scrappy Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. Exceptions include the late CBS war correspondent Bob Simon who had the increasingly rare combination of good looks, better reporting, and decades of solid field experience. Competition brought by technology and the recession left the business model in the mid-20th century, ushering in the bald-faced Hollywoodization of network news.
With US Weekly apps and the whole concept of trending, we ourselves are complicit in the stories that become clickable. I see it on my Facebook page: stories about educational attainment and achievement and affordable housing barely register a blip. Stories about people--gossip--go viral, the many comments and likes proof of performance. Executives and anchor/reporters feel the pressure and use these very digital tools to brand and market themselves. It's within this context that TV journalists became and indeed, some see themselves as celebrities. Look no further than the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Reporters are asked: what are you wearing? Like the celebrities at their table, they respond! Who cares what the scholarship recipients are donning or how the funds will help them pay for college.
Executives prizing "likeability" and "looks" over field experience.
Brian Williams' glee when appearing on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show with David Letterman.
Vanity pervading "the business" comes at a time when critics slam networks for the increase in, for example, weather at the expense of foreign coverage. Yet Williams is not alone. In a video with sister network Fusion, ABC News rival anchor David Muir teaches his interviewers "how to make a listening but concerned anchor face." Click to watch the video:
From this point forward, can a viewer watch a David Muir interview and not wonder if Muir is acting and putting on his anchor face? What's really behind the mask--the passion to hold a person in power accountable who has abused his position or when appropriate, compassion when moved by human suffering or strength of spirit? Maybe he wishes he were playing Candy Crush?
When I was a local reporter in Rhode Island, investigative reporter Jim Taricani from the rival local NBC station (who was held under house arrest for not revealing a source) reminded me we weren't members of the media, but of the free press. In the media culture of 2015 and in the face of significant domestic and international crises, it's a given that our democracy needs a vibrant press to inform the citizenry. Actors or comedians who play journalists have a space on the small and big screen. But when it comes to the news, credibility and truth are a precious currency to the craft and calling of journalism. Keep an eye for those who don't honor this but rather embrace celebrity.
They'll be the next to fall.
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