Being a journalist is a little like being a human window. In this changing world, the job is to offer a clear and undistorted view.
Done right, journalism is more or less selfless; that’s why reliable news organizations have safeguards to counteract the occasional human yen among journalists to become part of the picture.
Unfortunately, in the digitally disrupted, corporate-owned, high-stakes television news business, these safeguards have become muddled as pressure has mounted for anchors to put more and more of themselves before the public. Modern TV anchors are expected to not only be journalists but superhuman multimedia stars, too.
The fall of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is an embarrassing tale and a sorry window onto this development in the news business. In public appearances that were integral to his job, Williams asserted that he was on a Chinook helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
As it turned out, he wasn’t. He was in a helicopter behind one that was hit, and his story understandably offended those who actually were in the chopper.
He has made other questionable claims. He once said he saw a body floating by his hotel room in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and witnessed a suicide in the Superdome while residents were sheltering there.
Journalistic interpretation can be nuanced, but, in the words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you’re entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts. If it turns out that those memories didn’t actually happen, it should cost Williams his job, and probably will.
In Great Britain, they have a better word for what most television news anchors do now. They’re called presenters, quasi-journalists who possess a very specific skill set. Questioning other real journalists, appearing objective and maintaining composure are key elements.
In the United States, we have a class of people who could best be described as news celebrities. Charming and handsome, Brian Williams is as comfortable on David Letterman’s couch as he is reading off a teleprompter in his own New York studio. This ease has made him wildly attractive to the public, and for this, he has been handsomely paid.
The Murrow boys and Walter Cronkite also seemed like gods in their day – and shilled for the occasional advertiser. Did they embellish their personal accomplishments for ratings? Doubtful. Then again, they didn’t need to. Their corporate bosses wouldn’t have marketed them as both ubiquitous narrators and newsworthy figures, both presenter and story, as media conglomerates do today.
NBC should have done more to protect Williams from the temptations of the superhuman role they gave him. It’s fair to ask what he was thinking, but it’s also fair to wonder where NBC was when their brand was running around with his foot in his mouth.
In a digital market that has forced the news to compete with everything from cat videos to celebrity gossip, it takes a certain amount of selflessness for a news organization to rein in a $13 million-per-year TV news star. NBC/Universal/Comcast wasn’t selfless.
Rather, Williams’ popularity was so lucrative, his corporate masters’ view became distorted. They didn’t ask questions. That’s why his failure isn’t only on him; it’s also on his employers.
Those journalists behind the window are only human. Even in the modern media world, where mere humanity has long since ceased to be sufficient, it pays to remember that.