Independent's Eye by Joe Gandelman
So NBC's Brian Williams is off his anchor desk for six months -- wanna bet it'll be a LOT longer than that? -- and has gone from being a respected anchor to a godsend to comedy writers, internet ridicule, and Jerry Seinfeld punch lines.
Up until this month, Williams seemed to be a 21st century anchorman descendent of David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. His anchor stint and credibility were cut short when he admitted he "misremembered" being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003. NBC put him on unpaid leave, amid reports that there may be more instances of (ahem) memory flaw.
Williams wasn't merely the brand name for NBC News. His narrative was what the network was aggressively selling.
He was someone who had "been there." A recent NBC ad in The Week showed a front shot of Williams smiling with his hand on the shoulders of a serviceman and declared: "Some battle scars are worn on the inside. And for anyone who's been there, there's a secret. It doesn't harden you, it makes you more human. He's been there. He'll be there. NBC Nightly News: 10-Years with Brian Williams."
The Internet is now exploding fake photos of Williams "there." Williams in the death car with JFK in Dallas.... on the moon...at Yalta with World War II allied leaders...with Lincoln and his generals. Soon we'll likely see Williams "there" with Clark Gable on the set of Gone with the Wind after the shoot -- or with John Wilkes Booth after the shoot. You Tube has a Hitler "Downfall" parody with the murderous Nazi raging upon learning that Williams is gone.
Many analysts blame William's progressively transforming himself from the NBC Peacock into Pinocchio on his slipping into the entertainer mode, appearing on talk shows, and even lobbying to replace Jay Leno. But that doesn't explain it.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said NBC knew Williams was a "ticking" time bomb with his "pathological..Hemingwayesque" embellishments but no one pulled him in. On his blog, NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen notes that signs suggest NBC was complicit as far back as 2003 in knowing Williams' account wasn't entirely accurate.
The r-e-a-l reason Williams became what he has become is that he's the latest example of someone whose career advanced because of solid journalistic or pundit qualities, which were changed by his weakness and our 21st century media culture.
To advance and market his brand (his personality) he jettisoned the some qualities that allowed him to advance to that level. He won fame and fortune but left other virtues behind. We've seen this before.
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly was a solid, award-winning local journalist who advanced to ABC News. When he left ABC for the syndicated Inside Edition show biz news show he slowly began shedding his former persona, which you can see it in his infamous "WE'LL DO IT LIVE!!" off-the-air-rant on You Tube. Today, he's Fox News' biggest bombastic money maker and the solid journalist of old only shines through in some serious interviews.
Chris Matthews was once a superb print political columnist. Once he got on MSNBC he turned into the interrupting, cartoonish caricature who shamelessly nags and hypes viewers to buy his latest book. Also on MSNBC: one-time listenable liberal talker Rachael Maddow is often unwatchable, opening her show with a looooooong lead (you scream "Get to the point!!!") and repeating concepts several times -- while formerly serious liberal writer Chris Hayes now smugly states beliefs rather than attempts to seriously make a case.
Once Williams and others break into the top ranks, our media culture becomes like a massive Cuisinart. And many don't have strong enough ingredients called "principles" and "professional standards" not to lose their original, more serious qualities.
You might be tempted to paraphrase Shakespeare and say, "The fault, dear Brian, is not in our stars but in ourselves." But I'd amend that to add: "...and in being absorbed, re-shaped, changed, and homogenized by our media/entertainment culture."
The real lesson here is in another quote from The Bard: "To thine self be true."
Copyright 2015 Joe Gandelman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week's online edition. CNN's John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at [email protected] and can be booked to speak at www.mavenproductions.com. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joegandelman