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B. Williams -- Super Anchor: The Tip of the Scandal

02/09/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Nothing sets off the media as much as a good scandal within its own ranks. Take the current feeding frenzy over NBC News anchor Brian Williams claiming to have been on a U.S. helicopter shot down over Iraq in 2003, when, in fact, he was in another chopper, which arrived unscathed an hour or so later. Williams apologised for "conflating" events. Now, as Managing Editor of the news program he anchors, with a new contract of $10,000,000 dollars a year, he has administered his own slap on the wrist, withdrawing himself from anchoring the show for the next few evenings.

There are pundits howling for his scalp: He's lost the nation's trust. How can he ever anchor an investigative report, accuse some miscreant of lying, with a straight face?

What most of the outrage is missing, however, is that the Williams' flurry is just the tip of a much greater scandal: the charade of the glamorous, all-seeing Super Anchor who ranges the planet in search of scandal, outrage and spectacle.

It's a colossal fake, a travesty--put over on an audience that desperately wants to believe in the sham. But, hey folks--the Emperor has no clothes.

Various versions of the Williams' scenario have been played out over the past few years--the public and the critics acting like jilted lovers when the sordid truth is exposed. Lara Logan gets it terribly wrong with a sensational interview charging that the Obama administration was guilty of inadequate security at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Dan Rather messes up documenting how George W. Bush supposedly dodged duty in the Air Force.

But the fact is that Super Anchor is often more actor than reporter. His or her role is to give the story a certain imprimatur, which it doesn't always deserve. Much of the real work, digging, and investigation is done by others. But you folks don't want to know about that.

For decades, that's increasingly the way that TV news goes about its business.

The trail was blazed by the preeminent show of them all, 60 Minutes, where I was a producer for 27 years.

For example, the name of a 60 Minutes producer responsible for a particular segment appears over the right shoulder of each of the correspondents at the beginning of each 60 Minutes piece, after the words "Produced by." Probably 99 percent of the viewers have no idea what "produced by" really means.

Which is just the way the people who run 60 Minutes and CBS News and the other major news organizations want it.

You'd think that news shows that pride themselves on revealing hypocrisy and cant, on uncovering deception, would be all for truth in packaging when it comes to themselves. They aren't.

Most of the correspondents at 60 Minutes were top network reporters before they went to work for the show and have all the necessary skills. Mike Wallace, when he got his teeth into a story, was first-rate.

The problem is that once elevated to stardom, the correspondents usually don't have the time-nor often the inclination-to dig into the complex subjects they regularly purport to tackle. The producers and associate producers and researchers do the bulk of the reporting on most stories. The correspondents are tightly scheduled, parachuting in for a few days to do the key interviews before jetting off to join another producer.

The unavoidable upshot is that the producers are thoroughly familiar with the story and the correspondents often are not. They're obliged to rely on the producer and his assistants for the reporting, even though they do their best to master the briefing material they're given.

The taped interviews are often pure shadow play. The producers usually pre-interview every character, often several times. They usually prepare a set of questions for the correspondent, often including, in brackets, the answers that will be given. And they continue to add questions as the interview unfolds.

Mike Wallace, who justifiably took pride in his interviewing skills, insisted on writing his own questions when profiling one individual, but when doing a normal report he was the first to admit he relied on the producer.

The trick for the skilled correspondent in such circumstances is to express just the right degree of surprise or shock ("You mean your own father did that to you?") to make it appear that he is hearing the interviewee's appalling tale for the first time, when in fact he has already been briefed ad nauseam by the producer.

Sometimes, the correspondents may already have heard the story two or three times from the interviewees themselves, but keep asking the questions until the interviewee has managed to deliver just the response they are looking for.

There are also many cases in which good producers carry the correspondents, salvaging interviews by judicious editing or by aggressively stepping in as the cameras are being loaded to demand additional questions.

But you'll rarely see the true role of the producer acknowledged on a news show. That wouldn't sell. Each week, on 60 Minutes, millions of Americans tune in not to watch the latest investigative reports from producers Rich Bonin or Ira Rosen but the ongoing adventures of Scott, Morley, Steve, Lara and Leslie.

You can almost hear 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt's original pitch. "Look, I've got this great concept. It's a TV adventure series. You've got these guys--and later maybe, a gal--who work for this TV magazine show. Each week they're into something new, digging up dirt about corruption, talking to some famous film star, wandering in their safari suits around some exotic country. It can't miss!

"And best of all, except for the reporters themselves, we don't have to lay out big bucks for any of the other people who appear. They're all doing it for free! We can't lose!"

In fact, the stars on the major news shows are as much actors as reporters, with Hollywood-sized salaries to prove it. Even if Super Anchor is on the scene for only a few hours, the producers use every cosmetic trick in the book to make it appear as if the star were there for the duration. Another artifice is to use narrative questions to hide the fact that the producer rather than the correspondent conducted the interview.

Watch carefully the next time the intrepid star relates how "We spoke with so-and-so," "We got a hold of the documents," or "We managed to tape him as he was sneaking out the back door of his office one night." You can almost always safely bet the "we" does not include the star.

Those analysts who have bothered to dissect such reports discover what everyone already senses: the star usually appears more often on camera than the people they're supposedly reporting about. And why not? The correspondents are national celebrities, most of them much more famous and recognized than the people they're interviewing.

To a very great degree, they oversee themselves, torn between their own professional consciences on the one hand and their usually desperate hunger to produce a "sensational" report. Of course, in going after sensation, they make mistakes.

"The Deeper You Dig, Any Story Collapses." That maxim is attributed to Cy Romanoff, who ran the local news wire in the city of Chicago many years ago. What it means is that most investigative reports on CNN or 60 Minutes or anywhere else are usually painted starkly: black and white, the bad guys and good guys. In fact, most of life is played out in shades of gray. When you start digging into any supposed scandal you usually find that the bad guy is not all that bad; the good guy not all that good, and often the supposed villain is not really a villain at all. Such subtleties, though fascinating to uncover, don't make for the kind of clear-cut morality plays that are the staple of the major news shows.

The producer frequently finds he no longer has "a story." Usually producers and correspondents recognize when they arrive at that point and drop the project. But not always. It's when the revelation occurs after you have already committed several weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to a report that the process is most painful, and the temptation to continue, in spite of what you have uncovered, is greatest.

Temptations to distort abound. Most taped interviews, for example, run at least half an hour in length. But it's rare that the producer uses more than a couple of minutes of any particular character; usually its only twenty or thirty seconds. The choice of those sound bites is critical. They're simple to manipulate; it's easy to delete bothersome denials or qualifying phrases.

What would be wrong with revealing that the star correspondents are not journalistic superheroes? That others are responsible for much of what they appear to have accomplished? That revolutionary idea was actually suggested in 1981. It came in the aftermath of a controversial report that Mike Wallace and I broadcast after almost a year of research. Mike credited me by name in his opening. I appreciated the gesture but felt that such credits shouldn't be exceptional.

Shortly after that, a number of us asked for a meeting of 60 Minutes producers with the correspondents and Hewitt to discuss the question of credit. I made my pitch that as part of his on-camera introduction to each report, the correspondent should say something like, "For the past six weeks producer Norm Gorin has been looking into this story, and here is his report."

Joe Wershba, an ebullient, crusty producer, was even more vehement on the subject. Tempers flared. Sensing mutiny, Hewitt announced that he, Mike, Harry, and Morley would discuss the issues in private, and all four stalked out.

When they returned a few minutes later it was to toss down the gauntlet. "You've already got the best credit in television," Don informed us, and he went on to warn that if we were not satisfied at 60 Minutes, there were plenty of others in the world of television who would love a crack at working on the show, with or without a credit.

That ended the meeting.

Not surprisingly, there have been few such assemblies since.

This article is largely rewritten from a piece I wrote for Brill's Content in October 1998.