Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Great Karmic Wheel of Brian Williams Keeps Turning

     There is a phenomenon in journalism I call the "Near Miss Cycle."
     Two airplanes will nearly collide in some spectacular fashion: one pulling up just seconds before impact, for instance. Or the wing of one plane will actually clip another on the ground. Whatever the circumstances, the story for some reason makes the news.
      Then the media suddenly becomes aware, again, of the concept of aeronautic "near misses," and starts reporting on other examples, of which there are many. Almost every day, it seems, at almost every airport. Maybe not as dramatic — certainly not as dramatic — as the instance that first caught the world's notice. But dramatic enough to feed this newfound interest. 
     For a while. Eventually, the sheer number of near collisions, none of them as compelling as the original, numb the audience, and the story dwindles away into nothingness, where it remains until the next spectacular near miss sets off the cycle once again.
      This phenomenon is not limited to airplanes, alas.
      We are seeing this in the wake of the Brian Williams melt-down.
      Williams, for anybody reading this in 2035, is the superstar NBC network news anchor who lied about being aboard a helicopter hit by a rocket 12 years ago in Iraq, when he was actually in an entirely different helicopter that wasn't hit at all.
     In the pre-Internet age this lie would have caused grumbling in a handful of people who heard the fabrication and knew better. But now, when negative details can find the wide audience hungry for them, such small bore blunders carry big consequences. Last month it caused an enormous scandal, causing NBC, eventually, to suspend Williams for six months. Though I would argue it was Williams' tin-eared attempt at damage control, his flea-bag "I forgot" non-apology that turned what might have been a passing embarrassment into a lingering if not endless career distorting disaster.
     Much conversation about journalistic ethics ensued, which I didn't join into, because I believed that putting this into the realm of journalism is a category error. Williams wasn't reporting on news, he was talking about himself in a speech, and the truly valuable realization in all this to understand that the actual facts about Williams' life that he could have used to puff himself—his being super rich, super famous, super handsome, super important—were not enough, obviously. He felt obligated to invent heroic episodes to further enhance his already glittering reputation.
     In that regard he is like many, perhaps most, men, who feed their egos at every turn, with facts if they can, with fantasy if those facts aren't handy. That sounds like I'm defending Williams, and I'm really not. I'm scrupulously honest, in part, because the fibbing of which Williams is guilty is so common and so cheezy. You could replace all network news anchors with sock puppets and I wouldn't mind. But  if the new standard is that exaggerating braggarts shouldn't be allowed to hold their jobs, well, then a lot of offices will be empty.
     Because attention, like other sublime substances, is addictive, and having a lot today, however much that is, can mean that you want a lot plus just a little bit more tomorrow. The implication in this scandal is that Williams is somehow unique here, and he's not.
     But people missed that. They thought the Williams gaffe revealed something significant, something newsworthy, and so the cycle continues. Last week, it was VA secretary Robert McDonald lying—in a conversation with a homeless man no  less—about being in the Special Forces. Now it's Bill O'Reilly, famous as a font of half-truths and self-inflating nonsense for years, suddenly finding his rampant puffery being fact-checked anew by Mother Jones. Why? O'Reilly fondness for mendacity hasn't changed. It's just that, in this stage of the Williams cycle, being an odious blowhard takes on a darker significance, the way squishy campus 1970s radicalism was, 30 years later, cast in the grim hues of terrorism. I imagine we'll have another month or two of the ponderous dinner speech braggadocio of TV stars being scrutinized as if  they were State of the Union addresses. Until the public gags at the sheer quantity of the stuff, and the media moves on to meat more attractive.  Adulation is addictive, like heroin. We shouldn't be surprised that people overdose and ruin themselves on it too.


  1. I've found truth telling is a lot easier when you're a lousy liar.


    1. I think Mark Twain quipped, "Always tell the truth. Then you never have to remember anything."

  2. Brian Williams' lying doesn't exist until I see its victims can be substantiated. Lies like the Guardian article.

  3. I have a hard time with the Brian William's morality play - to me, it's like Tannheuser. On one hand, he did lie, but he doesn't write or edit the news - he just gets in front of a camera and talks. We like to think that news anchors are like Murrow, Cronkite, and Brinkley, but Brian is just like Ted Baxter.

    And that's the other side of the coin - there's an image to protect, and there are a lot of people in the industry who could do his job - and for less money to boot. If I was NBC it wouldn't be difficult to cut him loose - I've got advertisers to keep happy.

  4. Neil, I couldn't disagree with you more on this subject. What Williams did was no "small bore blunder", as you call it. He did, in fact, report the untruth as news and repeated the false circumstance many times over the years. I call that pathological. He had a responsibility to be truthful and ethical as a journalist with a high seat of power, the anchor chair. And I also disagree with you about men who you say "feed their egos at every turn." Really? Most men? I doubt that. So, feeding one's ego means lying? My husband was a network correspondent for decades. Not once did he change the facts of a story to puff himself up (and he reported on major news events from around the world for ABC News.) He would NEVER imagine feeding his ego with an untruth. Is this what we have come to in the world of journalism in the cases of Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly? Should the public just expect this now? I say, never! And thank God for social media so the public can get involved and have a say on the matter. A handful of grumbling people who know better isn't good enough anymore. Williams and O'Reilly, with their dishing of untruths and unethical behavior give solid, thoughtful, hard-working decent and honest journalists a nasty black eye. What Williams did was not a "near miss." It was a full on collision with what is right: reporting true facts every time...not folly.

    1. Perhaps your judgment is distorted by your saintly husband then. One swallow does not a summer make.

  5. I predict O'Reilly will just breeze right past this episode by painting himself as a victim of a liberal smear job. He doesn't have to meet the same standard as Williams anyway, It's like comparing a pro wrestler to a real athlete in an actual, competitive sport.

  6. That well known author "Anonymous" made a little addition to something Sir Walter Scott wrote about public deceptions that throws some light on the subject.

    "Oh, what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive.
    But when we've practiced quite a while,
    How vastly we improve our style."

    As we have learned from politics and advertising, the power of repetition engenders belief, possibly even in the perpetrators themselves. A semi-defense of Williams is that he didn't lie in his newscasts but in appearances on Letterman, etc. And he was, unlike O'Reilly, in a real battle zone.

    You are, of course, correct in your main point that the subject will run its course, as the Guardian's big "CPD Black Site" scoop already seems to have done.

    Tom Evans

  7. Mr. Steinberg, you have a lot to learn about the news business. You qualify anchors as 'news readers' and that is totally incorrect. Why not call Scott Pelley ( who is a real journalist) and ask him if he lets other swrite his script for him? Guess again. I knew network anchors who wrote every word of their copy and would often have network correspondents do a re-wite on their pieces if it did not seem quite up to snuff. Brian Williams was managing editor of his show. I dare say he was not a reader. He chose the words he used to fluff on the accurate facts of the helicopter event. Don't try to blame anyone producing the show. He wrote it, he said it. And again on Letterman...and blah blah blah. But, you open your blog article with a place for the public to comment. Then, should anyone disagree with you, you make snide comments about their comments, i.e. to "anonymous" about her husband being "saintly" because he an honest and ethical reporter. That was odd. Too bad everyone is not so 'saintly' when they report. You just don't seemed very knowledgeable at all about what people want and that is accurate and honest journalism in the world. Not truth-stretchers like Brian Williams and blowhards like Bill O'Reilly.


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