Jon Stewart cut his old friend Brian Williams a break, making some really big media news to overshadow the story about the possible death blow to Williams’ career.
A suspension of the leading anchor of the old Big Three television networks for embellishing stories is a big deal. But the departure of the king of fake news is huge. Whom will we turn to now to learn what the news really means? Well, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and whoever replaces Stewart on The Daily Show, but more on that later.
The dual career moves — a suspension following an apology that only made things worse, contrasting with lavish praise following an announcement of a voluntary departure at some vague point later this year — were loaded in contrast and irony that tell us so much about television news and entertainment today:
- Stewart and Williams clearly are friends, or at least friendly colleagues. The NBC anchor was a frequent guest on The Daily Show, part of the entertainment circuit where Williams had grown more likely to embellish accounts of his own proximity to the action of war than on the serious NBC News broadcasts, which expect a higher standard of truth. (That ended with Williams’ Jan. 30 report on the NBC Nightly News, embedded toward the end of this post),
- As Williams presided over the leading nightly newscast in an industry in decline, Stewart presided over the explosion of the what he called fake news, comedy shows styled as newscasts but mocking the news, the newsmakers and the serious networks that cover news and newsmakers.
- Stewart cut his friend a break initially, not piling on with a Thursday evening segment, though the Williams story had broken last Wednesday and was a big enough story Thursday that it could have and should have led The Daily Show on Thursday. I was watching for it Thursday and a Facebook friend commented, and I agreed, that Williams’ absence from the Thursday lineup was puzzling.
- When Stewart finally addressed the Williams story, leading off Monday’s show, he didn’t pull punches, calling the embellishment a lie and likening it to masturbation. He made fun of how a journalist’s brain works in shifting from the looking-straight-at-the-camera truthfulness of Williams’ original 2003 report to the “full-blown anecdote mode” of celebrity appearances on entertainment shows.
- Halfway through his Monday night segment, Stewart shifted from discussing Williams’ lie to placing it in its more devastating broader context of weak media coverage of the war: “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war. … Never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual fucking war.” Williams was surely part of that failure, with his fawning coverage of American troops, starting with his 2003 report during the initial invasion and continuing nearly 12 years later with the Jan. 30 newscast that started the avalanche that led to Monday’s suspension. But Stewart blasted much graver sins, such as the New York Times’ becoming the mouthpiece for Bush administration lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, followed by Dick Cheney appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press, discussing the planted false Times stories. Stewart mocked Wolf Blitzer’s later explanation that journalists write the “rough first draft of history,” saying the news media didn’t even write that draft, but plagiarized it from Cheney.* It was Stewart at his best, showing media at our worst, drawing painful laughter for those of us in the profession.
- The timing of the two announcements, both breaking Tuesday evening, was certainly coincidental. Williams doubtless was facing a suspension even if he and the media at large hadn’t faced Stewart’s withering mockery, and Stewart clearly wanted to control the timing of his own career announcement, breaking the story himself before negotiating details with Comedy Central, which would be bound to leak. But the sandwiching of the Williams suspension between The Daily Show episode where Stewart mocked Williams and The Daily Show episode where Stewart announced his own plans to leave voluntarily was a perfect frame to showcase the relative cultural importance of network news shows and comedy news shows.
- The contrast between the two news genres is underscored by the speculation about who would replace the suspended and departing anchors. I’m not saying I never heard of NBC weekend anchor Lester Holt before he was announced as Williams’ fill-in, but I couldn’t have told you who he was. I could have identified David Gregory and Ann Curry for you, but they just left the Peacock Network in ugly upheaval going on at NBC’s other signature shows, Meet the Press and The Today Show. In his time as anchor, Williams had made it so much about him (more on that underlying sin later) that NBC has no star ready to take his place. By contrast, Stewart set Colbert, Oliver and Wilmore up for their star turns on Comedy Central and beyond. The first two at least have moved on to such sweet gigs (probably with contracts that will keep them there) that they likely won’t appear much in speculation about who will take Stewart’s anchor chair. In fact, Williams, who canceled a scheduleed Thursday appearance with David Letterman, is running short of time to appear with that old comedy friend. Letterman will leave his show in May, giving way for Colbert to take over Sept. 8. Would a Daily Show reporter move up to the anchor chair, maybe Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi or Jessica Williams? The show certainly has a stronger bench than NBC. Or would an old anchor from that other long-running fake news show, Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update, move to Comedy Central, maybe Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Seth Myers? Would Daily Show alum Steve Carrel return from his movie career to become anchor? As you think about the possible replacements for either man, fake news has clearly given our culture more stars.
In the past week, I have started drafts of a post about Williams several times. Until Stewart’s planned departure eclipsed him, none of the approaches seemed to give me the right angle to add more to a discussion that many were already contributing to. I’ll salvage some of that work with a few observations here about Williams and the media coverage of his downfall:
Is Williams the next A-Rod?
The six-month suspension, if Williams really returns to the anchor chair, has a similar feeling to Alex Rodriguez’s one-year suspension from baseball and approaching return to the New York Yankees.
Both men were stars who didn’t need to embellish on their achievements. Each received a long suspension that will be difficult to come back from.
Rodriguez will turn 40 this season and hasn’t played close to his former superstar level since 2010. The Yankees wished A-Rod would just go away, but they’re stuck with the 10-year contract he signed in 2007. Expect him to be a mediocre DH this year.
Williams is 55, about the age of an average viewer of a TV nightly newscast. After a decade in the anchor chair, he was clearly the best-known of the network anchors, though his perch atop the ratings was already under challenge from ABC News, where 41-year-old David Muir just took over the anchor chair and has been gaining ground, scoring his biggest win over Williams in the Jan. 20 ratings, the week before the broadcast that started Williams’ downfall. (Mimi has been a loyal ABC News watcher since the days of Peter Jennings, so that’s on most evenings in our home, but she watches it more than I do, and neither of us is a Muir fan; I can’t say whether we’ll continue to watch him.)
If Williams manages somehow during his suspension to restore his credibility, and if NBC ratings tank during his absence, he could find a more welcome return than A-Rod. In other circumstances, appearances on comedy-show interviews might be more helpful than they could be here. If he’s going to recover, he needs to address this in a more serious setting, perhaps an interview on 60 Minutes or with Brian Stelter, Barbara Walters or some other serious journalist, perhaps an Oprah Winfrey interview, perhaps some joint appearances at veterans organizations with some soldiers involved in the 2003 incident.
But if Williams can’t repair his image, and if NBC finds a substitute who can restore the ratings, the return could be awkward and might not come to the anchor desk. I see contract negotiations as a real possibility, including a buyout.
Don’t blame this on branding
One of the silliest analyses I saw of Williams’ credibility problem was Mary McNamara’s contention in the Los Angeles Times that Williams’ downfall was a result of branding:
In telling that story, he chose to bolster the Brian Williams brand at the expense of the ‘NBC Nightly News.’ Modern journalism is beset by many challenges, logistical and fundamental, but none are as potentially dangerous as its growing cultivation of and reliance on personal brand.
I’ve argued here with Gene Weingarten about whether branding for journalists is good, and I’ve blogged advice for journalists on branding. I have co-authored a booklet with Egyptian journalist Ahmed Esmat titled The Branded Journalist: How to stand out in the digital crowd (the Arabic version is published; English version coming soon).
Blaming this on branding ignores the brand that Williams claimed (rightly or not) as NBC’s anchor. Williams’ personal brand, as spelled out in the NBC promotional video below, was based on trust.
Embellishing his war stories damaged the trust that was at the heart of his brand. He could have made all his appearances on entertainment shows without claiming to come under enemy fire in Iraq. And he didn’t get in trouble until he repeated that claim on the evening newscast. This wasn’t a problem of building or extending the Williams brand; it was because Williams damaged and betrayed the very foundation of the brand.
The story isn’t about you
A point I wrestled with in the unpublished drafts about Williams was that his lies — a cardinal sin of journalism — grew from his overlooking another important point of journalism: The story isn’t about you.
Al Tompkins of Poynter addressed that issue better than I will, counting the first-person uses in Williams’ 2003 report, when he truthfully said it was a different helicopter that was downed by a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. The report still revolved around Williams and his crew being at war.
I should acknowledge my fondness/weakness for personal stories and note that I have told many personal stories here and on my other blogs: stories about cancer, family travels, a baseball game with my sons, career moves, even a history of my hair.
I have argued that we do better journalism by bringing our humanity to our stories, that the heart is one of journalism’s most important tools and that my editors erred by not letting me tell a first-person account of trying to cover a visit to a disaster zone with an interpreter.
But you can personalize a story without making it about you. My personalized account of the visit to the disaster zone was about the disaster, La Tragedia, and about the stories people were trying to tell me about the disaster. My personal stories about cancer and baseball succeeded, if they did, by appealing to universal themes about disease and living your life and about baseball and parenthood. Responses in the comments and on social media and personal messages brought stories of other people’s illnesses and family baseball experiences and so on.
Al’s Poynter piece noted how Walter Cronkite’s powerful personal commentary on the Vietnam War was focused on the war, how Nellie Bly’s first-person reporting focused on the atrocities in mental health institutions.
Williams always threw out love to the troops, but didn’t provide much real insight about the war he was covering. And the strong and unnecessary focus on his reporting role even in the initial factual reports did set up the telling and embellishing of war stories later.
Don’t blame the “fog of memory”
Williams’ initial excuse blamed the “fog of memory” for his claim that he was on the helicopter that was hit by an RPG.
I have documented that honest people can exaggerate in their memories of important events in their lives that they remember vividly. My example was a championship basketball game where players’ memories of the turning point were exaggerated beyond what the video showed.
I’m certain similar exaggeration comes in the actual memories and the war stories honestly told by soldiers returning from battle. Don’t count on the accuracy of the details of the stories told by the soldiers who were actually in the helicopter that was hit by a grenade. They were focused on landing safely, not documenting details, and that incident has been surrounded for them in a fog of adrenaline at the time and probably some following mix of nightmares, retelling, suppressing and therapy. One of the pilots involved recanted his own memories about the incident.
But it’s different for a journalist. However scared you are, your focus is on getting the facts right, gathering all the details. Williams got the facts right initially on which helicopter was hit, and he reported that correctly in his next few accounts. Fog of memory could account for whether you remember spending two days or three days in the desert following the incident, but not for placing yourself on the helicopter that came under fire.
I’m certain Williams was aware when he started embellishing and placing himself in that other helicopter. By the time he mentioned the incident again in a news report this year, he was responsible for the facts in that report.
Update: Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons wrote a good piece for Slate on the fallibility of memory and memory science, including tips for fact-checking your memories.
A shoutout to Stars and Stripes
Stars and Stripes was the newspaper I read daily when my father was stationed in Japan from 1965 to 1967. It was founded as the newspaper for Americans serving overseas in the military, and when I was at the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2008, I provided consulting, evaluation and training for Stars and Stripes journalists in Washington, Germany and Japan, as they joined other news organizations in trying to chart their move into the digital age.
To the extent that people are aware of Stripes, many tend to think of it as a PR arm of the military, serving the military version of news to the troops. In my close work with Stripes, I learned that its charter protects it from Pentagon interference, and that it really acts as an aggressive watchdog news organization, breaking important enterprise and investigative stories about the military. I wasn’t at all surprised to see it debunking the lies of a news anchor who was praising troops.
Congratulations to Stripes and particularly to reporter Travis Tritten, whom I don’t recall meeting in my work there years ago. (Tritten might be a good moderator for the Williams appearance before a veterans organization that I speculated about above as he seeks to repair his image.)
How this differs from politicians’ lies
Some reaction to the Brian Williams lies has recalled Hillary Clinton’s lie about being under “sniper fire” on a Bosnia trip, Ronald Reagan’s lies about helping liberate Auschwitz and other lies politicians tell about their service records or visits to battle zones.
Here’s the difference: We expect politicians to lie and we’re used to their spin when they get caught (or to them ignoring that they were caught, because we often don’t hold them accountable at the polls). Hell, many voters expect politicians to lie to us, telling us what we want to hear about the economy, taxes, wars and other issues.
Politicians don’t build trust, to whatever extent they do, by telling the truth.
Journalists and news organizations have plenty of problems and issues with trust. But we do claim to tell the truth. It’s the first principle of the Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics, the Poynter Guiding Principles for the Journalist and the Radio Television Digital News Association (actually, public trust is the first point in the RTDNA code and truth is second, so the two are addressed separately).
Truth and trust are interwoven for a journalist. It’s completely different than for politicians, so Williams’ trail to recovery (or the price he pays) isn’t at all comparable to a politician’s spin when caught in embellishing a war story.
Thoughtful posts by Jay Rosen
This post is already too long, so I won’t respond to either of these posts, but I recommend reading Jay Rosen’s takes on this issue:
Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for? (a two-part post, but you can read both parts there)
Always, always, always verify
Above all, this story underscores the importance of verification. Brian Williams didn’t get in trouble because of the BS he spun in telling war stories on Letterman and elsewhere. All those lies passed without notice (even if some internal concerns were being raised in NBC, as some have reported), and we don’t hold conversations to the same standard as we hold news reports.
But this downfall started with a report (below) on the NBC Nightly News. When you report the news, even a fluff piece about the crowd at a hockey game giving a veteran some love, you need to verify facts. And you don’t verify facts from memory. You verify from your notes, documents, sources and earlier reports.
* I can’t recount the media’s failure before the Iraq war without a tip of the hat to the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder newspapers, which nailed this story. As the New York Times, NBC and virtually all the rest of the media were acting as lapdogs for the Bush administration, Knight-Ridder performed some of the best watchdog journalism of my career, debunking the administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction again and again. And I was saying that before I went to work for Jerry Ceppos, then vice president for news at Knight-Ridder and now my dean at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
Minor personal disclosure: Last year I interviewed for a possible job with nbcnews.com. I don’t see a conflict there, but I disclose connections that could be possible conflicts, so now you know.