NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams is many things: a celebrity, charming, articulate, intelligent and, it turns out, a fabulist who is now suspended from his $13-million-a-year gig presenting the news weeknights to millions of Americans.
One thing he is not, though, is a journalist. Not in my dictionary.
Williams is to the hordes of ink-stained wretches who gather facts for public consumption as Cesar Millan is to the lovely people who walk my dogs when I can’t, which is to say a celebrity who doesn’t resemble them at all.
Williams read the news from scripts that were written and reported by a staff, most likely a rumpled lot with ragged nails and messy hair who worked like fiends to get the facts during the day so he sounded good at night.
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It’s not fair to the real journalists – the men and women toiling for not much money and little fame at radio stations, local TV stations, neighborhood blogs and newsletters, large urban newspapers and tiny rural weeklies and even Williams’ own crew – to lump them into the same category as a celebrity news presenter prone to self-aggrandizement.
And certainly not fair to people like Rick Orlov, my friend and former colleague, who died earlier this month after 40-some-odd years slinging words in Los Angeles, helping to write the city’s first draft of history in 500-word chunks. He didn’t have fancy degrees or make a big six-figure salary. He did his job almost every day of his life for a modest paycheck, few accolades and plenty of aggravation from editors right until the day before he died from a heart attack.
On Monday, as Williams was embroiled in a deepening scandal, I attended Rick’s memorial in the packed council chambers in Los Angeles City Hall, where he had been stationed as a reporter for two decades. I don’t think the chamber had seen such a large crowd since the city considered banning lap dances.
In addition to his colleagues at the Los Angeles Daily News, where he worked writing as many as four news stories a day, the pews were full of reporters from radio and TV stations, and from a competing daily newspaper in town.
Even competitors liked and respected Rick. He treated everyone, from the most clueless rookie reporter to the most obnoxious TV correspondent, as fellow travelers along the important path of keeping the public informed. He shared sources and tips, and was always on hand to explain what the heck just happened on the council floor. His office door was never closed.
The only things he kept to himself were scoops. He was a nice guy, but not stupid.
About half of those at the memorial weren’t colleagues, friends or family, but subjects. Elected officials past and present, bureaucrats and political consultants took time out of their day to remember a guy who wrote about their deeds and misdeeds equally. As a former city controller and mayoral candidate put it in her tribute, Rick was one of those rare journalists you wanted to talk to. I know what she means; he was tough, but always fair and accurate. And like other journalists, he didn’t embellish or make things up.
I like to imagine what Rick would think about Brian Williams’ downfall. I can see him doing his usual shrug that meant he thought it was all nuts and say something like, “I don’t know why everybody’s upset that he lied. It’s not like he was a journalist.”
Rick would know.