Friday, February 20, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox
Brian Williams Embellishes Katrina Coverage

NOTE: this commentary if being posted in response to my blogmate Charles Snow’s earlier post criticizing Brian Williams for making a false claim and NBC Nightly News for how it handled the scandal. (See What Would Walter Cronkite Say About Brian Williams and NBC?).  The current version is a revision of the original.

While I share Charles’ outrage about Brian Williams’ compromises with truth and how NBC Nightly News handled the affair, I think he’s missing the bigger picture. The issue is not just about Williams and the integrity of NBC Nightly News; it runs to the very heart of the mass media system. Truth and integrity, which guided the dissemination of news in the Walter Cronkite era, are no longer as highly valued as they once were. The driving preoccupation of our corporatized mass media today is to boost profits. This end justifies a multitude of means that years ago would have been unthinkable. Brian Williams, ironically an admirer of Cronkite, was skilled at creating drama by putting himself, at times seemingly in harm's way, at the scene of the event he was covering.  For this he won high praise from NBC’s corporate management, many of his colleagues, and, most importantly, his viewers. This meant high rating and hence more revenue for the network’s corporate owners.

What I find more disgraceful than the Williams lie is his habit of injecting himself into the center of the story he is telling, a habit that has become all to common among celebrity journalists.  I'm also disturbed by the hypocritical attacks he's received from other mainstream journalists whose own records for truth leave much to be desired.
Most everyone agrees that Brian Williams did a terrible thing in misleading the nation about a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a helicopter in which he was riding in Iraq in 2003 (he told the story for years, but it only recently exploded in scandal), but a surprising few Americans have had problems with other embellished stories he has told in the past.  Williams is notorious in the business as a teller of tall tales. “That’s just Brian being Brian,” those who knew him would say. While covering Hurricane Katrina, he astonished other NBC news people who accompanied him on the trip with unsubstantiated tales of gangs “overrunning” his French Quarter hotel,” watching a suicide in the Superdome, and seeing a body floating in floodwaters—Brian being Brian.

In placing himself in proximity to the action, Williams tries to create drama by giving his story telling an appealing intimacy. In spinning his various yarns, however, he sometimes crosses the line between truth and fiction, perhaps unwittingly. Sometimes his stories change when he retells them in different settings.  His friend Jon Stewart diagnosed his affliction as “infotainment confusion syndrome.”  NBC executives and the armies of producers and writers that inhabit the newsroom could have headed-off Williams' hyperbolic tendencies and occasional shading of the truth, but they chose not to.  Why, when his ratings were so high? Instead they pressured him to be more personable in showing off his raconteur skills.  Viewers made him the #1 news anchor.  His personalized story-telling style became standard practice in newsrooms across America.  

The Williams helicopter fib must be seen as part of a larger problem with mainstream media (MSM) journalism. Market forces demand that stories appeal to viewers.  They are sold to the public much like a product.  I sometimes have trouble nowadays distinguishing between news and infomercials. Journalist Leslie Savan aptly captured the essence of this problem: “As financial pressures continue to demolish the boundaries between advertising and editorial, fibs, frauds and outright lies come to be equated with profits. And in witty, easy-going Brian Williams NBC found an eager participant in maintaining corporate habits and achieving its goals.”

What is even more aggravating to me about the Williams scandal is how viciously he's been attacked by other tall tale-spinners in mainstream media.  It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. The attack is coming from many of the same MSM journalists who for over a decade have passed on reams of misinformation about the buildup to, as well as the conduct of, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. I vividly recall the steady stream of lies and half-truths about Washington’s motives, objectives, conduct, and accomplishments in the wars. Williams’ helicopter lie is nothing compared to the non-factual war information that has been steadily spewed by MSM in the U.S.

Have we forgotten the MSN’s unquestioning acceptance of Bush administration assurances about weapons of mass destruction and the phony feel-good stories it broadcast about Pvt. Jessica Lynch’s heroism and the “spontaneous” pulling down of the Saddam Hussein statue? Did any Journalist tell more falsehoods than Judith Miller of the NY Times? How many stories were withheld because they might embarrass the United States? (CBS knew of the torture at Abu Ghraib, but waited to go public until it learned The New Yorker was about to go to print.)

Then there’s the Fox News double-standard: it venomously jumped on the “fire Williams” bandwagon while remaining conspicuously silent on Bill O’Reilly’s reported fibs and exaggerations when covering the Falklands War for CBS in 1982.  His lies included claims he faced down an angry mob that "stormed the presidential palace," saw soldiers open fire on and gun down civilians, and heroically rescued his cameraman while being chased by army soldiers (this lie got him sent home by CBS).  He said at the time that all the other CBS journalists "cowered" in their hotel rooms while he was the only one who covered the story.

These forms on “infotainment” stand in sharp contrast to how war was covered during the Vietnam era.  Under that model of war reporting, correspondents had to have a solid factual understanding of the war.  This enabled them to question Washington’s version of events when it didn’t square with what they knew.  When they didn’t know something, they did all that was necessary to get at the truth. This model has degenerated into what we have today.  Network correspondents usually have a very superficial understanding of the conflicts they cover.  They are ill-equipped and not incentivized to search for truth.   

The few journalists that raise questions about what’s really going on run the risk of being chastised and called un-patriotic, or possibly even held in contempt if they refuse to divulge the source of a story they produce that exposes a government wrongdoing, as happened to James Risen.  Phil Donahue, who had guests on his show that expressed skepticism about the Bush administration’s purported motives for war, got his show cancelled by NBC. Telling a lie can get you suspended; chasing truth can get you fired.  Go figure.

Coverage of the Iraq War was possibly the worst example of irresponsible journalism in American history.  Little of the coverage was true-- not the reasons we went to war, the dangers we faced, how we conducted the war, what we were trying to accomplish, what we actually achieved, and the state in which we left the country.  The only thing real was the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and American soldiers, whose deaths the MSM downplayed by refusing to list the number of Iraqis killed or show returning flag-draped American coffins.  Yes Williams contributed to the misinformation, but he wasn't alone.  He shouldn't be the fall guy for the media's sins.  What gross hypocrisy to turn on him with such venom now.

The way the MSM has pounced on Williams leads me to believe it would ;like him to become the fall guy for its multitude of sins in covering the conflicts in the Middle East.  Perhaps news people believe loudly condemning Williams will somehow absolve their shame for complicity in misleading the public about the lead up to and reality of the Iraq War.  Of course, this assumes they have shame, which, given the sad state of journalism, is questionable.
Will the Williams affair lead to any positive change?  I seriously doubt it.  Expect MSM to continue to downplay facts and historical context when a superior sort of fiction will better boost ratings. It will still lust for scandals that enable the skewering of individuals, guilty or not. Politics at home will continue to be covered like inside baseball—who won, who lost; who’s ahead, who’s behind. World news will still largely be interpreted through the lens of American exceptionalism, which finds the United States incapable of doing wrong, at least not intentionally. Journalists will continue to inject themselves into stories, often in an embellished way, in an effort to personally to connect with viewers.  High drama will continue to sell.

All this doesn’t excuse the Williams lie. What he did was wrong, but it must be understood in the context of America's market-driven news reality.  Williams was widely regarded as the best in the business.  His high appeal to young viewers was particularly important because they’re the consumers that go out and buy those luxury cars and fancy electronic gadgets. Charles thinks Williams should resign. I don't think Williams' bosses at NBC Nightly News or the network's sponsors share this view, at least not unless Lester Holt, his temporary replacement, miraculously boosts ratings.  

Walter Cronkite might roll over in his grave, as Charles imagined, but not because Brian Williams violated his golden rule that journalists should never fib or self-aggrandize; rather, it would be because of what has happened to the news environment he so highly valued.


  1. I don't know what to think about the state of our media. It's disgraceful for sure. Strangely, Brian Williams' exaggerations bother me much less than a media that doesn't seek truth. I am constantly reminded of Bill Maher's criticism about zombie lies. Recently in one of his New Rules commentaries he mentioned the lie that won't die - trickle down / supply side economics. This is fantasy economics that would have been debunked long ago if it didn't benefit the ownership of media. This is one of many egregious "zombie" lies that won't go away either because it benefits the owners or media directly or because it doesn't fit within the current media structure or political environment.
    The current media structure of having entertainment and equal time for both sides of an argument (no matter how ridiculous one position is) provides a perfect platform for distortion (or outright lying) has completely blurred the line between actual tales and fairy-tales.
    The political environment also has a big impact. Your example of regarding coverage of the Iraq War fits this perfectly. Our government demanded unwavering loyalty to their position regarding the Iraq War and any skepticism was characterized as unpatriotic. Fine, but isn't healthy skepticism essential for a democracy and isn't it integral to ethical journalism? Apparently not if it goes against the political winds at that time.
    I am not optimistic that the MSM (that includes Fox News, no matter what they try to say) will change. As long as it is driven entirely largely by corporate profits, we will get what they think adds to the bottom line.
    Fortunately, because of technology and the Internet, there are many other sources of information. Everyone can be a "journalist" and some of them are very good. A good thing about most these Internet journalists is that they don't pretend to be professional journalists. They know that in order to be heard they need to promote themselves, and this honesty is a good thing! At least the audience understands they are not trying to adhere to some mythical set of standards that no longer exists. This leads me to view the news like other products - Caveat Emptor

  2. I am not sure that I am so willing to diefy Cronkeit -- he didn't have to compete with Fox News. I wonder what his persona would have become in our times. He did, after all, work for a rather large corporate entity. As for the NY Times -- our putative national newspaper -- well, I clearly remember their villification of Allende after his election in Chile. All for being a democratically elected socialist/communist. Liberalism apparently has its limitations.


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