Today another puff piece about Brian Williams, the face of NBC News since 2004, the man with the perfect desert tan hair, a jutting Dick Tracy- jaw and a faux commanding yet calming baritone, the man who may turn out be the blowhard of the year. If you missed the earlier four parts of this thrilling saga, all are accessible at www.MarvinKitman.com. Keep in mind this is not hagiography.
The Rise & Decline of Brian the Mediocre, Part V
One way to make a name for yourself as a famous journalist is to do it in the old-fashioned way: go out there and find real news. Most of what we call “news” today is actually “olds,” a repetition of what everybody else has been saying, based on a theory somebody might not have heard it before. Even the most respected source in medialand today, the Guardian, has had headers ten days in a row about the German plane that ran into a mountain.
Finding real news is what used to be called “scoops.” This didn’t seem to be Brian’s bag.
Brian had a wry sense of humor. He had the marvelous skill of jamming his voice down low, and sounding authoritative. To his credit, he synthesized information quickly and presented it live smoothly, without a lot of “ahhs” and other rhetorical pauses. But he wasn’t passionate about getting the news himself.
My idea of a good network newsman, who deserved to be more than an occasional fill-in anchor, was the greatest of them all, Sam Donaldson of ABC News. A dreaded interrogator at White House press conferences, he was always on top of a story. His admirers still remember Sam hounding a politician for an answer, and when he didn’t get one, chasing him all the way to his car, trying to shove a mike into an open window, yelling repeated variations on the question he never got an answer to, or another even more uncomfortable one, as the distinguished personage drove off into the sunset.
His not being a memorable newshound did not prevent Brian from insisting he be named “Managing Editor” of “The NBC Nightly News.” It was a mantle Walter Cronkite wore, even when he was at sea on his yacht. It let everybody know Brian was more than just a talking head, a robot that read a TelePrompTer for 22 minutes a night. It meant he had final say about what went on the air.
But what Brian was most proud of was writing the news. Many anchors claimed to write the news they read. By writing what they often meant was taking the blue pencil to a prepared script and adding the words “but” “and” or a well-placed “the.” Williams claimed he wrote all the copy on the show every night. As Mervin Block of the Television Newswriting Workshop put it, “That boast is toast.”
“Power Performance,” a book about multimedia, by Tony Silvia and Terry Anzur, journalism professors at the University of South Florida, questioned Brian about his writing it all. “I am still forced to write my copy because I can’t read anything cold. I have almost a kind of dyslexia when it comes to reading someone else’s writing.”
As Block asks, “Why would Nightly News employ two full-time writers to write the news? And, in a pinch, a senior producer pitches in?” There is a certain level of redundancy at NBC News the bean counters at Comcast might address, if those writers were sitting around doing nothing every night.
There have been exceptional writers at NBC: David Brinkley, Robert McNeil, Sander Vanocur and especially Edwin Newman. Brian wasn’t one of them. The boast alone should have alerted management into veracity problems ahead.
To further gain traction for his growing reputation, Brian added to his laurels by becoming a war correspondent.
Going into the field to report a story is an honorable journalism tradition.
Sir Henry Morton Stanley was assigned by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald in 1871 to find the Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone in darkest Africa. His ”Dr. Livingstone, I presume” is a legendary kicker.
Richard Harding Davis achieved early glory covering the Johnstown Flood of 1889, before becoming the first American correspondent to cover the Spanish-American War, the Second Boer War and the First World War.
Winston Churchill was a correspondent for the Daily Mail in the Afghanistan War of 1896, filing reports from the same villages our troops are fighting in today. And he did it while moonlighting as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Queen’s Hussars.
In modern times, Dan Rather, for example, made a name for himself as Gunga Dan on “The CBS Evening News,” reporting from Afghanistan wrapped in the traditional Middle Eastern headdress.
As a critic, I have never been a fan of anchors travelling to the scene of major news events. It did not seem to be as much of an improvement in the quality of news as the lemmings of the network news swore to themselves.
The job of the anchor, as I argued in my Newsday column, is to anchor. As the name implied, it is to anchor the flow of news from the field. Why do we have producers and cameramen at the scenes of disasters and other worthy news events, the network news geniuses should ask themselves? They are the boots on the ground that has been getting all the facts straight. It’s bad enough that the networks fly in star correspondents for quickie visits, grabbing the producers notes, do a walk-through the ruins and emote something like “…And the city is counting its dead, but Phoenix will rise from the ashes” before flying off to the next crisis he knows nothing about.
NBC News, for example, has one of the superstars of the foreign correspondent corps in the Middle East, Richard Engel, on duty. Why do you also need the anchorman on the scene?
Travel may be broadening, but it takes a physical toll on the peripatetic anchor. Winner of the Frequent Flyer Award in 20th Century journalism, Afghan Dan Rather always looked like he had Gladstones under his eyes from all that grabbing his trench coat and overnight bag and racing off like a Dalmatian to the crisis du jour.
Nevertheless, Brian didn’t listen to my advice.
In 2003, the latent Hemingway in him drove Managing Editor Brian to assign neo- war correspondent Brian Williams to duty in the trenches in Iraq.
There are two basic rules about reporting heroics.
First, you actually need to have done or otherwise been involved in the events being described in your war stories. Not even a reenactment— popularized by tabloid journalism (“A Current Affair,” “Hard Copy”) and tried out briefly by ABC News in the 1990’s— as an information tool cuts the mustard.
Rule #2, failing in Rule #1, the alleged perpetrator should not be blowing his own horn about a claim which may not be totally or even partially true. Repetition increases geometrically the possibility that sooner or later some scold or busybody who has nothing better to do with his time than scour social media, which has replaced network news as the most reliable source of news, and will stumble on the soft spot in the reportage.
It appears that Brian of Arabia had only two problems with his reporting from the front.
(To be continued)
The Marvin Kitman Show
April 2, 2015