Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: Brian Williams the storyteller

SAN DIEGO – This is what Brian Williams gets for strutting like a peacock.

The NBC News anchor – who was caught misrepresenting details of his reporting during the Iraq War, which then led to revelations about what could be additional inconsistencies in the covering of other stories – has taken himself temporarily off the air. And with his bosses at the network fact-checking these disputed stories, his future is uncertain.

In media circles, the new parlor game is betting whether Williams can keep his job – which reportedly pays as much as $10 million per year. But which job are we talking about?

In essence, Williams has four jobs, and this is one reason why he tripped up. He is the anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News.” He is also the managing editor of the entire newscast, which means he oversees all the content. On occasion, he is sent out on assignment as a reporter to show viewers that he still has journalism chops. And finally, Williams regularly goes out – presumably with the approval of his bosses at NBC – to appear on late-night talk shows and other programs, not just to build his own brand but also because of what we may assume is a deliberate effort to attract a broader audience to the evening newscast.

It seems to have worked. According to Nielsen Media Research, Williams’ “Nightly News” – besides being the No. 1 newscast overall – is also the clear winner with the coveted younger demographics of 18- to 49-year-olds and 25- to- 54-year-olds.

But while serving as a reporter, Williams started telling tales and exaggerated the peril he was in while riding in a helicopter in Iraq. He did it on air, and further embellished during other appearances, including on CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.” This has arguably weakened the trust that viewers have in the newsman, and so there is a concern that they will stop tuning in. And while none of this has any effect on how he reads the news, network executives still worry that he has lost the appeal that made him so valuable in the first place.

It’s really an impossible situation. We expect so much from network news anchors, and some of those expectations conflict with one another.

Journalists are supposed to be storytellers, but do they really need reminding that the stories they tell are supposed to be grounded in truth? Apparently, Williams did. Still, let’s not be naive. In this day and age, when consumers of news and media have so many choices, truth only gets you so far. We also demand that news be entertaining, and spicing up the details might do the trick.

Of course, Williams is a newsman and the anchor of a network evening newscast. So he has to walk a fine line. He can’t be so eager to be entertaining that what he reports is inaccurate.

For the last 40 years or so, Americans have become conditioned to think of news as being not just about facts but also about personality. My grandparents used to watch Walter Cronkite on television every night, and I don’t think it mattered to them in the slightest that they couldn’t relate to him or didn’t know anything about his personal life. That would be unheard of today. We want to know everything.

Meanwhile, I can’t make up my mind about whether the Williams drama should matter to anyone outside the news business.

Part of me thinks it shouldn’t, and that this is journalism’s version of inside baseball. I’m tired of the incessant piling-on by bloggers, the narcissism of the news industry, and the endless introspection by journalists and others who work in the media. This is essentially a minor story about someone with an apparent knack for exaggerating – Mexicans call it putting crema (cream) on the taco – and it’s not worth the everyday coverage it is getting.

The fact that this unfortunate episode is getting so much attention tells us less about Williams than it does the high opinion we have of ourselves and our profession. Those are two topics we never get tired of talking about.

You’ve heard it said that the most dangerous place to stand is between a politician and a television camera. True enough. But, more and more these days, you also want to be careful not to get caught between a journalist and a mirror.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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