Why TV news has lost all its moral authority

NBC’s anchor Brian Williams is in trouble, but respect for the medium is already gone

Brian Williams moderating a presidential debate  in Florida  in January 2012. Williams said on Saturday he was stepping aside from daily news broadcasts for several days after admitting he had misled the public about being on a helicopter that was forced down in Iraq in 2003. Photograph: Chip Litherland/The New York Times

Brian Williams moderating a presidential debate in Florida in January 2012. Williams said on Saturday he was stepping aside from daily news broadcasts for several days after admitting he had misled the public about being on a helicopter that was forced down in Iraq in 2003. Photograph: Chip Litherland/The New York Times

 

This was a bomb that had been ticking for a while. NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.

But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone, and “there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top”, as one NBC News reporter put it. It seemed pathological because Williams already had the premier job, so why engage in résumé inflation?

And you don’t get those jobs because of your derring-do. When Williams was declared the heir apparent to Tom Brokaw in 1995, hailed by Jay Leno as “NBC’s stud muffin”, I did a column wondering why TV news programmes only hired pretty white male clones. I asked Williams if he was an anchor android. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said gamely, in his anchor-desk baritone. “I can deny the existence of a factory in the American Midwest that puts out people like me.”

Williams told friends last week that he felt anguished, coming under fire for his false story of coming under fire. Although the NBC anchor had repeated the Iraq war tall tale, ever more baroquely, for more than a decade, when he cited it on his January 30th broadcast during a segment about going to a Rangers game with a retired, decorated soldier who had been on the ground that day when he landed, Williams got smacked down on Facebook.

Firefight

Stars and Stripes

Social media – the genre that helped make the TV evening news irrelevant by showing us that we don’t need someone to tell us every night what happened that day – was gutting the institution further. Although Williams’s determination to wrap himself in others’ valour is indefensible, it seems almost redundant to gnaw on his bones, given the fact that the Internet has already taken down a much larger target: the long-ingrained automatic impulse to turn on the TV when news happens.

Although there was much chatter about the “revered” anchor and the “moral authority” of the networks, does anyone really feel that way anymore? Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidising the news division. One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that the US was losing the Vietnam War.

Cat videos

When current ABC News anchor David Muir was still a correspondent, some NBC News reporters had a drinking game about how many times he put himself in the shot and how many times his shirt was unbuttoned. As the late-night comic anchors got more pointed and edgy with the news, the real anchors mimicked YouTube. Williams did a piece on his daughter Allison’s casting in an NBC production of Peter Pan. And Muir aired an Access Hollywood-style segment with Bradley Cooper. As the performers – Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher – were doing more serious stuff, the supposedly serious guys were doing more performing. The anchors pack their Hermes ties and tight T-shirts and fly off to hot spots for the performance aspect, because the exotic and dangerous backdrops confer the romance of Hemingway covering the Spanish Civil War.

Oliver, who has made waves with pieces on financial chicanery in the Miss America contest and the corporate players trying to undermine net neutrality, has said he is hiring more researchers with backgrounds in investigative journalism.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Fusion, Muir acted out the facial expressions he uses during his broadcast: “the listening face,” the “really listening” face, and the “really concerned” face. With no pushback from the brass at NBC, Williams has spent years fervently “courting celebrity”, as The Hollywood Reporter put it. As his profession shrinks and softens, Williams felt compelled to try to steal the kind of glory that can only be earned the hard way. – (New York Times)

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