The Rise & Decline of Brian the Mediocre
Friends of great literature:
I resume today my study of great American icons who have been known to embellish, or lie, while establishing reputations as paragons of truth, justice and the American way, that was suddenly interrupted by my fair and balanced reports on the Big Fat Liar Bill O’Reilly, and other pressing matters such as the start of the silly season (the GOP presidential nomination race). Left hanging by the thumbs was fans of “Brian the Mediocre,” and I apologize for the delay in going to press with Part IV. For those who missed the first three parts, all are accessible at marvinkitman.com
And now, the thrilling saga continues, the much–anticipated “The Rise and Decline of Brian the Mediocre” Part IV.
At the press conference in 2002, when Tom Brokaw announced he was throwing himself from power as one of the nation’s three most important network evening news anchors, the stage was crowded with NBC executives, Tom and Brian and their agents, and other luminaries. Tom was so full of himself at this point in his career, he was considering a run for President. He was walking around the halls of 30 Rock with an entourage as if a prince. If you looked at the body language on the stage, Tom and Brian could not have gotten further away on the stage without falling off, their faces turned away in opposite directions. They hated each other. Brian, the anchor-in-waiting, had done what Dan Rather did to old Walter Cronkite at CBS. By holding a gun to Tom’s head, Brian’s people had gotten NBC to set a timetable for Brian’s accession. So Tom was aced out of the job, the single clever thing Brian Williams has done as a journalist. It turned out that Brian was much better at getting the job than doing the job.
2005. In less than two years Brian had gone from a journalistic unknown to a nonentity. It was hard to have a whole half hour of national TV and never say anything that anybody cared about. But Brian was more than successful. In his first years as the anchor of “The NBC Nightly News,” occasionally he might stumble on something, but by and large Brian Williams had taken a great franchise and made it totally irrelevant.
As a critic I wasn’t surprised.
To be fair, it’s not easy to make a lasting impression in the five or six minutes an evening news anchor is actually seen on the screen. As an anchor you need to have “it.” Whatever “it” is, Brian did not have “it.”
As much as I admired his wardrobe – his Turnbull & Asser-look was so Murrowesque—he wasn’t a Gabe Pressman kind of reporter. He wasn’t a MENSA candidate. He wasn’t as involved in issues as a Keith Olbermann. He always seemed to be, as one of his admirers put it, a mile-wide and an inch deep.
His talent as a journalist was schmoozing with station and network executives and colleagues. He was so beloved by his colleagues, Lawrence O’Donnell, the hard-nosed host of MSNBC’s “Last Word” was virtually in tears the night Brian fell from grace. Schmoozing is a skill they should teach in journalism school, even more valuable than the right hair spray or how to read the Nielsen numbers.
The best anchor people usually have a something that commands attention, a “Now listen up, folks, I’m going to tell you something special you should want to hear,” something that says “anchor.” That’s why they get the job.
One of the other things about being a network anchor is you’ve got to be a little reassuring, look like you’re in control. Walter Cronkite could tell us the world is ending tomorrow, film at eleven, and you could go to sleep at night knowing everything is okay.
Some successful anchors deviated from the standard. Dan Rather, for example, could make you nervous, sweaty. His personality was so over-powering, it dwarfed the news. He was hot in a cool medium. A quirky guy that irritated people, he was always doing things that made people uncomfortable. So much seemed to be going on behind the traditional anchorman mask on TV. People didn’t trust him like Uncle Walter. He was not a guy you’d want to be stuck in an elevator with.
But I loved the “CBS Evening News” in its glory years (1981–2005) just because of his unpredictability. News junkies like myself would tune in just to see what zany thing Dan would do. Walk off the set because the tennis match was running over, or people would accost him on the street asking, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth? He was the Manchurian Candidate of news, a reason to watch “The CBS Evening News with Dan Blather.”
But Brian was predictable to a fault.
He didn’t cock his eyebrow, like David Brinkley, which let us know we should listen to the story with some skepticism. He didn’t make you feel like you were listening to your old college professor in a tweed jacket and pipe like John Chancellor.
He couldn’t be a Tom Brokaw, a hick from South Dakota, who projected the image of a haughty Brahmin from Rapid City, S.D. with a distinctive speech defect. He always sounded like he was going to choke on his ls, which he pronounced gl as in glitch.
He was vanilla in a job requiring strawberry, pistachio or salted caramel nut dark chocolate, just Brian the nice, sweet smiling, sincere-looking, predictable kid from New Jersey in a man’s job.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are some people who liked predictable. They had enough unpredictability and conflict at their jobs, or even worse not working. They didn’t need anything to rattle their slats. The news was upsetting enough.
But Brian knew just being a dependable unpredictable white bread kind of guy with a minus charisma rating was not enough to make it in the big leagues. He needed a gimmick.
Occasionally a story came along that added something to his depth as an anchor. In the post-Murrow era newsmen were afraid to be human on the pseudo-objective network commercial network newscast. If they felt emotion, they wouldn’t show it. Brian Williams did that after Katrina.
Instead of standing outside, bending like a palm tree in Hurricane Dan Rather style of weather reporting, where they don’t comment, seemingly for fear of offending mother nature, Williams on the “NBC Evening News” (Aug. 29–31, 2005) went inside and began reporting on the human side of Katrina. He was in the Superdome giving us tales of agony and misery that thousands of Katrina victims endured and still endured after the storm. His coverage was scathing, angry, appalled at the bungled relief effort. “Don’t you guys watch television,” he had shouted at one chewed-out FEMA official. “Don’t you listen to the radio?”
By wading into the story, Brian had discovered the value of emotionalism, one of the forgotten virtues introduced so effectively by Ed Murrow reporting the Blitz from the roof tops in London during World War II.
Brian’s career was pumped.
For a while he tried adding emotionalism to the cards he was playing on “The NBC Nightly News.” It already was working for Diane Sawyer, who had her problems replacing Peter the Great on rival “ABC World News” after Jennings had died of cancer. Diane was the mistress of emotionalism.
But Brian Williams was no Diane Sawyer. He couldn’t make the people cry on cue, like Diane.
Katrina made Brian a semi-name, a laurel he shared with Anderson Cooper at CNN, his rival in wringing the most emotion out of a terrible situation. He wore Katrina as a badge of honor. His Second Battle of New Orleans reportage was hailed as a triumph. Back then nobody doubted its authenticity. He looked so sincere and caring.
The taste of journalistic glory still in his mouth, Brian decided to play the heroics card. If the story didn’t come to him, he would go to the story.
(Next, Brian Goes to War)
The Marvin Kitman Show
March 26, 2015