‘You’re wasting your time and my time as well
L-I-living a lie, I guess time will tell
You’re making excuses for the things you’ve never done
Walking in circles, blinded by the sun’.
Sea Horses – Blinded by the Sun (1997)
Not yet 40, by 1997 Brian Williams was already heir apparent to Tom Brokaw and America’s number 1 newscast. Having joined NBC in 1993 his career was to develop with the anchor chair as Brokaw’s successor on NBC Nightly News never far from view.
Square jawed, handsome and then a weekend anchor, his resume included time as NBC White House Correspondent covering the Clinton Administration and further anchor duties on the network’s new cable news channel MSNBC. Williams was firmly ensconced to a preordained destination. He had come a long from way from growing up on the Jersey Shore.
Planned with a mixture of technical thought and pomposity that no one does better than a US television network, NBC announced in a news conference in May 2002 the succession of Williams for Brokaw on Nightly News. The date set 2 and 1/2 years hence to take us past the November 2004 Presidential Election, the effective end of a Presidential Cycle and into the twilight zone between election and inauguration. Brokaw’s last night in the anchor chair was Wednesday December 1st, 2004. On Thursday December 2nd with the change in headline title, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams commenced. The crown prince became king.
Plenty has been written already about Williams mis-remembering. His Chinook was not shot down in Iraq in 2003 albeit it was forced to land and he did spend two nights in the desert following the helicopter in front taking fire. Staying with the Iraq theme, in his recollections of the story over the years Williams had ‘sexed up’ the facts.
Arguably Williams might have ridden this out as a somewhat generously put case of overly enthusiastic recall. After all and to borrow the popular joke, no one else in America has been held to account for the debacle of the Iraq war – why make Williams the exception? Interesting parallel here at home, the only persons in the UK to lose their jobs over Iraq were also journalists and in the media. These were then Radio 4 Today reporter Andrew Gilligan and BBC Director General Greg Dyke.
One is tempted to ask what is about Iraq that is so dangerous to journalists whilst politicians seem almost Teflon?
Reverting back to Williams, the problem became truly toxic and almost certainly terminal to his position as anchor of Nightly News once doubts emerged over the veracity of his recall and post event commentary on Katrina. Mis-remembering over Iraq became a catalyst for a broader examination of Williams record and statements, most significantly arising from his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
NBC’s interim 6 month suspension of Williams, without pay, is likely cover for due process from which termination of his recently signed 5 year $50 million contract will almost certainly result. The personal and professional cost to Williams of his actions has in every sense been enormous.
If Iraq is quagmire still characterised on both sides of the Atlantic by denial, opaqueness and a sense of there being a continued absence of political accountability, the 1800 or so casualties of Hurricane Katrina and the ineptitude of the response of the Federal Government, touches arguably a rawer nerve in the United States.
That the ball was dropped in the Homeland spectacularly, in response to a natural disaster affecting its own, continues to the present day to be a source of shame and anguish to many Americans. There is in the public mind, no room for ambiguity as to the failure of multiple branches of the US Government. If America and more broadly the West today accepts the sheer impossibility of nation building in the Middle East, few if any Americans, nearly a decade later, feel the same way about Katrina.
For the country’s top anchor to fabricate recall and in so doing place himself at events in New Orleans he was either not there to see (the Super Dome suicide) or did not happen (floating bodies in French Quarter) was simply unforgivable.
The question is why did he do it?
Any answer is of course speculative but the other ‘anchor’ that it was last week announced would be vacating the chair, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, calls it “Infotainment confusion syndrome”.
Williams is likeable and amiable. In each of the last five years, he has averaged more than 25 appearances on America’s late night talk shows and popular entertainment programmes. As an American might say, do the math and it is one appearance every two weeks.
If the likes of Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert have in recent years led the move from satire into news, then implicitly with NBC’s direction and blessing, Williams was at the vanguard of the move from the opposite direction. In US news and entertainment there has been over the last decade a pincer movement.
Of course the driving force is money, technology and shifting demographics. Today’s network news and their anchors are increasingly another branch of the entertainment industry competing for viewers and ad revenues. The anchors are the brand behind which the network’s news operation sits. From this profits then flow.
If there was hubris in William’s recent 10th Anniversary appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where he once more slow jammed the news (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D25l1SWOF9M), it would be churlish not to also acknowledge that he is a talented and engaging performer. The problem is perhaps that belatedly we realise that we don’t want our journalists to perform. We want them to be journalists.
Least us Brits get all sanctimonious, we are not (as ever) too far behind the American model. Whether by means of statist BBC approved mirth as delivered to the populace each year through Children in Need, where our journalists can suddenly express their desire to entertain us in ever more outlandish ways, or Jon Snow at Channel 4 News being permitted to editorialise an appeal from the anchor chair (albeit not part of the broadcast) during last summer’s Gaza conflict, our television journalists seem intent on injecting more of them into news coverage. Williams is simply the leading light of a broader trend.
Whilst the errors in recollection and self aggrandisement of recall are Brian Williams own, to see a likeable man and talented journalist self destruct in this way is nonetheless uncomfortable viewing. A 30 year career of genuine accomplishment should not be defined by its likely end, albeit it now will. This is regrettable. Perhaps however it is the notion that as well as at NBC, we are together all complicit in the deceit that marks the conflation between news and entertainment, which makes this episode more uncomfortable and regrettable still.