Wednesday, February 25, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox

NOTE:  This  post is a modified version of my previous commentary on the Brian Williams affair (Hypocrisy Reigns Supreme in the Brian Williams Drama).  I wrote it for my son's blog, Busch League Sports, for which I write a column as "The Professor." This version was not intended as a response to Charles Snow's earlier post.  I'm re-submitting it because I think this version provides greater clarity to the points I was trying to make.  In addition, the pictures my son added to the otherwise somber piece give it a refreshing humorous touch.  The new title better conveys my thesis.

 brian williams moon

There’s been widespread criticism of Brian Williams for his lie about a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War in 2003, for which he has received a six-month suspension. (He told this story for years, but it only recently exploded into scandal.) Williams certainly deserves punishment for his falsehood, but there’s a bigger picture critique that should be part of the national discourse on the sordid affair. It runs to the very heart of the today’s mass media system. What I find more disgraceful than the Williams lie is his habit of injecting himself into the center of his story telling, a habit that has become all too 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.

brian williams helicopter

Truth and integrity, which guided the dissemination of news in the Walter Cronkite era in which I grew up, are no longer as highly valued as they once were. The Cronkite golden rule back then was to never fib or self-aggrandize. 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 artificial drama by putting himself, often in difficult situations, 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.

Most everyone agrees that Brian Williams did a terrible thing in misleading the nation about coming under fire in Iraq, but a surprising few Americans have had problems with other embellished stories he’s 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.

brian williams caricature
Williams Embellished a bit in Covering Hurricane Katrina
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, possibly unwittingly. His friend Jon Stewart diagnosed his affliction as “infotainment confusion syndrome.” NBC’s 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 choose not to. Why should they 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 MSM journalism. Market forces demand that stories have appeal. They are “sold” to the public much like a product or service. 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 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, much of it via personal war zone reporting. 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 out 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 Nightly News.  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.  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, a claim that has been disputed by other journalists who were present.  For his "courage," O'Reilly was ordered out of Argentina by his CBS bosses.

bill o'reilly

These forms on “infotainment” stand in sharp contrast to how war was covered during the Vietnam era. Most war correspondents had a solid factual understanding of the war situation.  They were able to range free throughout combat zones.  This knowledge base enabled them to question Washington’s version of events when it didn’t square with what they knew to be true. 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 often have a very superficial understanding of the conflicts they cover. They are ill-equipped and not incentivized to search for truth.  And even when they are, objective reporting is hamstrung by the requirement since 2003 that they imbed with the troops and agree to strict reporting rules mandated by the military.
Nowadays the few journalists that ask tough questions challenging official Pentagon versions of what's going on can lose access to the combat zone.  Those who dare write or speak publicly about a wrongdoing they uncover run the risk of being called un-patriotic or even seditious.  Some are threatened with legal action, as journalist James Risen found out. The networks themselves can be complicit in the muzzling of truth.  Phil Donahue, who had guests on his show that expressed skepticism about the Bush administration’s purported motives for the Iraq war, got his show cancelled by NBC. 

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 and reality of the Iraq War.  Of course, this assumes they have shame, which, given the sad state of journalism today, is questionable.

Here No Evil, See No Evil

Will the Williams affair lead to any positive change? I seriously doubt it. Expect the 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.   It will continue to strive for shock-value.  Politics at home will continue to be covered like a horse race: who took the early lead, who's leading down the stretch, who’s coming from behind, who won, by how much? 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 strive for a personal connection with viewers by injecting themselves into stories, often in an embellished way, even if this requires some staging. High drama will continue to sell. Truth will remain a compromised priority.

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. Some think Williams should resign. This likely does not include his bosses at NBC or the network’s sponsors, at least not unless Lester Holt, his temporary replacement, is somehow able to miraculously boost ratings.

A friend reflecting on the Brian Williams episode told me that Walter Cronkite must be rolling over in his grave. I agreed he probably was, but not because of what Williams did; rather, it would be because of the sorry state of contemporary journalism.     

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