Sunday, February 08, 2015


Because it's a celebrity story that looks like a news story, Maureen Dowd predictably directs her attention to the Brian Williams scandal in this weekend's column, joining the pile-on:
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...
She has no named sources and no fresh anecdotes, but we'll pay attention because, well, everyone hates Brian Williams, right?

But Dowd goes on to undermine the entire fatwa against Williams, even though that's clearly not her intent:
... 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’ valor 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 subsidizing 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 we were losing the Vietnam War.

But TV news now is rife with cat, dog and baby videos, weather stories and narcissism. And even that fare caused trouble for Williams when he reported on a video of a pig saving a baby goat, admitting “we have no way of knowing if it’s real,” and then later had to explain that it wasn’t. The nightly news anchors are not figures of authority. They’re part of the entertainment, branding and cross-promotion business....

As the late-night comic anchors got more pointed and edgy with the news, the real anchors mimicked YouTube....
Right -- and so why are we all being so freaking self-righteous about this? Yes, with great power comes great responsibility, but network anchors don't have great power anymore. Their broadcasts aren't driving the conversation about significant news events -- and even if they were, Williams didn't lie about a news event (the war), he lied about his experiences in that event. So why are we so worked up?

For three reasons, one each for the three groups who are driving this.

The left can't do anything about income inequality, can't get Gitmo closed, can't stop drone attacks, can't get Officers Wilson and Pantaleo indicted, can't persuade Liz Warren to run for president ... but the left can now hold Williams accountable for Iraq in a way it can't hold the real villains accountable -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and the rest of that motley crew, along with real media war criminals like Judy Miller.

The right believes that every news organization that isn't overtly conservative is engaged in a conspiracy to destroy America and deny Republicans electoral victories (to the right, those are essentially the same thing). A victory over Williams will be one more battle in the defeat of socialism and the rooting out of treason. If NBC fires Williams, the biggest victory parade will be led by Murdochians.

And, finally, there's the mainstream media itself, which is obsessed with this story out of sheer narcissism -- it's a story about us! it's about what we do! As long as some people are paying attention to the press, the press is going to bask in the attention and engage in endless chin-scratching about media ethics. There's no news judgment involved here. This is a pure ego trip.

Many stories about how the media operates actually are important -- but this is not one of them. No one's understanding of the Iraq War was materially altered by what Williams falsely said. We have his apology, we now have him removing himself from the air for a few days, and there are reportedly investigations under way. Suspend him, fine him, whatever -- but stop treating him as if he deserves to be in a dock in The Hague. Until you show me that he lied about important facts (and no, those floating bodies in Katrina's aftermath don't count, because there's a good chance they were real), I say that this story is a shiny object we've allowed to distract us for too long. And as long as anyone on Fox still has a job, Brian Williams should be very low on any reasonable person's media enemies list.


Victor said...

Drum-up bullshit to start a war?
You're ok.
You'll be on FOX and the Sunday morning gab-fests whenever you like.

But, exaggerate a personal experience, and brother, the whole country wants to shun you.

Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes we "remember" things that we never did.
And conveniently forget things that we did do.

It's what makes eye-witness testimony so inaccurate.

mlbxxxxxx said...

I really don't disagree with most of what you've written but I come down on the side of Brian Williams resigning. I don't think it's because I feel powerless about the war and want to use him as a proxy, though I'm sure some may feel that way. I think "our guys" (and for better or worse, Williams is considered center-left) need to be like Caesar's wife, i.e., above reproach. If Williams stays, he will forever be the counterpoint to any criticism of Fox. It may have been an honest mistake but it is not one a newsman can afford to make. I think his credibility is shot.

Never Ben Better said...

Well, in fairness, human memory is a mutable thing, and we all tend to edit, elide, enhance, and otherwise distort stories over time as we tell and retell them. Not only that, but we tend to believe the latest version we recall is accurate even when it's wandered widely from the original reality. This may be what happened. Or he may simply be a self-aggrandizer.

If this seems unlikely to you, find someone who shared an experience with you several years ago and who hasn't discussed it with you recently; ask them to tell you what happened, and be prepared to be surprised at how different their memory is.

I see this frequently in my work proofreading transcripts of depositions; two or more witnesses to the same event, recalling it after two or three years, will recall/not recall various details and participants, will reorder items within the event, and otherwise will have very different recollections.

Which still leaves the question of whither Williams and NBC now? Damned if I care; I no longer watch the network news.

Unknown said...

Yeah, his credibility is shot, but he ain't one of "our guys." He's the corporation's guy. He may be considered center-left, but he ain't that either. He's only that to idiots that prate on about "the librul media." He listens to Rush, ferchristsake.
Of course others have done worse and deserve worse (looking at you, everyone at Fox), but I'll applaud the fall of liars.

Anonymous said...

"Right -- and so why are we all being so freaking self-righteous about this?"

I know, I know, it's ridiculous really but, well, some people have this peculiar, old-fashioned prejudice about lying. Particularly by people whose job it is to tell the truth even if, in the news business, it's rarer than snow in hell!

Danp said...

I never thought of Brian Williams as the most trusted name in news any more than I thought CNN was. In fact, I think of him as just another propagandist who reports what each side says, informs no one of anthing of import, and looks serious like he had given the subject some thought. I think this story does challenge his credibility - maybe not as much as Hillary's in 2008, but enough to justify a demotion. The big problem here, not just with Williams, but with others as well, is they become more important than the news.

Unknown said...

i don't cry for brian; he got his anchor job simoly because he looked good reading the news. he never was a field reporter, he never actually investigated and put together a story before becoming an anchor. he was the first anchor without field experience, (anperfect republican metaphor: the guy promoted to boss w/o actual experience), and thus imo not particularly worthy of my trust or attention.

good ridance. i prefer lester holt anyway.

Glennis said...

Well, if the news media and journalism have become irrelevant, Maureen, I think that's something you had a hand in it too.

Ten Bears said...

Brian who?

Yastreblyansky said...

"Because it's a celebrity story that looks like a news story, Maureen Dowd predictably directs her attention" and her own work on the Times op-ed page for many years has also been "part of the entertainment, branding and cross-promotion business..." (see Thers.

marieburns said...

@Victor wrote, "Drum-up bullshit to start a war? You're ok.... But, exaggerate a personal experience, and brother, the whole country wants to shun you."

But isn't Brian Williams' performance drumming up bullshit to glamorize a war? I can't see how that's a lot better.

If Dowd's unsourced anecdotes have any veracity, then it wasn't just Williams who was glamorizing the war; it was the whole NBC "News" apparatus. They made money on it. Nobody called out Williams because everyone who knew, or might have known, he was a self-aggrandizing charlatan had skin in the game: the military, NBC brass, the administration. Brian was telling, and selling, in ultra-dramatic fashion, "our" side of that glorious war. (And others -- he made up stuff about his "observations" of the Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006, too.)

I'll admit that firing Williams isn't going to change this dynamic, so whether he gets away with it or not is moot. But we should not be foolish enough to believe anything these jamokes tell us. Their "reports" & latter-day war stories are scams to make us all proud to be Americans who fight terrorists here, there & everywhere with uncommon valor -- even as we sit on our butts & watch highly-sanitized versions of others doing the horrible work of war. That is the bullshit.

Now I'm going to do my bit for this great country of ours & go shopping. I believe I'll buy a flag pin.

Marie Burns

Iraqnaed said...

Nice try to make this situation another simplistic us-against-them attention-getting blog soundbite - thanks to reprinting just about all of Maureen's op-ed you seem to be vying for the same of what Brian has now You can go ahead and take a selfie... you earned it.

The point of Maureen's piece was to point out the irrelevance of TV news and its replacement by comedy shows that do the investigative journalism and bring home the news while the supposed newscasters are more concerned with becoming the news. Brian has now scored brilliantly in that category.

Unfortunately, the issue is much deeper. Brian twisted the facts to suit his needs/agenda/resume. Many news editors do this... seek out the story that matches their interest/bias/slant. For this reason, they should be removed along with Brian.

I don't care who is reporting the news to me or what they look like. Some of us just want the news. Not a soundbite. Not an opinion. Not a selfie. Not cake. Just the news. And some context would be nice too.