“Broadcast News” and the demise of Brian Williams

https://fellowshipofminds.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/lyin-brian-williams11.jpg?w=216&h=133Last week, as so many commentators have noted, was a big one in media. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart announced his departure after 16 years. Acclaimed foreign correspondent and 60 Minutes star Bob Simon and New York Times media critic David Carr (late of Washington City Paper) both died suddenly.

From a CNN Money column: “So much about journalism can be learned from this week: hubris from Williams, wit from Stewart, consistency from Simon, and ferocious eloquence from Carr.”

By coincidence, this weekend a local station was showing Broadcast News, a film I hadn’t seen since its debut. Billed in part as a romantic comedy, it’s also about the rise of blow-dried TV anchors who are all style, no substance, over less-glamorous reporters steeped in knowledge that informs their work. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Actor for all three leads.

NBC Nightly News was my newscast of choice—less for its anchor than, I admit, for its lead-in, the voice that said, “This is the NBC Nightly Nooz With Brian Williams.” The voice said “nooz” twice, which reminded me of where I came from, which was worth a smile every night. So I saw the January 30 broadcast where Williams thanked the embarrassed Army veteran whose platoon protected him in Iraq, after Williams’ helicopter supposedly was hit.

What had been whispered about for years suddenly came to the fore, assisted by Facebook, a service member who wrote there, “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft…,” and a Stars and Stripes reporter who saw this and followed up with a story. Quite a few times, Williams had either lied about or “conflated” the facts about his helo ride—plus the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and maybe even a puppy rescue in New Jersey.

Was it “conflation,” which is real and understandable in regular humans? But Williams knew better; his own blogs and past recordings held differing versions of the same stories, versions that were later used to cut his career short. Why didn’t he fact-check himself? Was he such a big shot that no one would call him on his many retellings as they grew?

“LYIN’ BRIAN” was the harsh assessment of the New York Post’s front page, showing Williams on air with a Pinocchio-like extended nose.

Which brings me to the climax of Broadcast News. Holly Hunter’s producer character is drawn to and repelled by William Hurt’s empty, pretty-boy newsreader character, who confesses that he’s not smart, can’t write, doesn’t know current events, but interacts perfectly with a camera. He’s everything Hunter can’t stand about where the news business is headed.

Director James L. Brooks sums up Hunter’s dilemma by having her confront Hurt about a (cursory and shallow) segment he reported on date rape. A real Hunter would have caught the problem with the segment right away, but in the movie, not until the end does she point out that he faked a tear for the camera. It’s a firing offense, she says. He either doesn’t care or doesn’t see her point. So she dumps him.

Brian Williams has never, to my knowledge, been accused of faking a news segment—only of exaggerating several events outside of his anchor chair. But it’s a matter of credibility, and that’s what he’s “selling” when in that chair. As Hurt’s character puts it, “Just remember that you’re not just reading the news, you’re narrating it. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you, you know; you’re sort of saying, ‘Trust me, I’m, um, credible.’ ”

Just like that, Williams wasn’t credible anymore. This new thing called social media inflated his conflation to the point where NBC couldn’t ignore the outcry and suspended him for six months. “You can’t have an anchor on the air while his judgment and credibility are being questioned on every front page in America,” said an NBC insider. Rumor has it the brass wanted to fire him outright, but as the highest-rated news anchor, he was too valuable a commodity.

My guess is that like Stewart, Simon, and Carr, Williams will not return to his post. At 55, his career may not exactly be over, but anchoring the evening news was probably its apex. It’s fun to imagine, as some wags have suggested, him and Stewart switching jobs. In the end, though, there’s nothing funny about the end of last week and the end of a career for a man the Washington Post calls “an anchor with a relatively thin reporting resume who was eager to cement his journalistic bona fides.”

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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