In another era, embattled "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams would not have lied about his helicopter coming under RPG fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He would not have told Comedy Central that he came within 1,500 feet of being hit again while covering the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War. He probably wouldn’t have gone on Comedy Central in the first place. Or become a regular on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and "30 Rock," for that matter.
Such things were once not only outside a newsperson’s job description; they were against the prevailing ethos of the profession. In the good old days of Walter Cronkite, old-timers will hasten to tell you, journalists maintained a degree of remove from their subjects. In Britain, where anchors are called “newsreaders” and strive to keep a low profile, that’s still the goal.
Amid calls for Williams’ resignation, yesterday NBC suspended the anchor for six months without pay for embellishing his biography, which the network said was “the appropriate and proportionate action.” The move comes three days after the anchor took a voluntary leave of absence from the show, saying that “it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”
But the truth is that in the modern media environment, Williams’ livelihood in fact depended on inserting himself into his stories, on “building a personal brand.” Older practitioners may scoff at the very notion that a journalist must also be a marketer, but those of us who work in online media have long ago accepted it as part of the job.
The Internet has been a powerful force for democratization in journalism; blogs and social-media platforms now allow nearly anyone to become a publisher. But this has in turn made news a cheaper commodity and upended the industry’s traditional economic model. Competition for eyeballs -- whether online or on cable -- is fiercer. In this new environment, journalistic institutions must do more than simply transmit information. This is why outlets like Vox have sprung up to add value by “explaining the news.”
Journalists, too, can no longer be mere stenographers. They must cultivate a following on Twitter and Facebook. They have to raise their profile with media appearances and speaking engagements. While there are plenty of examples of journalists needlessly injecting themselves into a story -- Williams’ faux brush with death being the prime example -- in some instances it can make it stronger. Take, for instance, gay blogger Andrew Sullivan’s landmark essay in The New Republic on the “end of gay culture.” Not only would it have been disingenuous for Sullivan, one of our era’s most successful brand journalists, to fail to mention his sexual orientation; including his personal experience gave the piece depth. As New York magazine’s Ann Friedman has pointed out, it also confers job security in an unstable market.
It’s true that few relished their dual role as journalist and celebrity quite like Williams, who gallivanted around the talk-show circuit like Donald Trump threatening a presidential run. But the real difference between Williams and even the most successful brand journalists like Sullivan, Vox’s Ezra Klein or FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver is that Sullivan, Klein and Silver still spend the bulk of their time doing journalism.
Tina Brown, herself a media brand, made this observation in a more pointed way on Twitter:
Solve Brian Williams' debacle by removing his Managing Editor news title. Time to debunk the myth that anchors are journalists.
— Tina Brown (@TinaBrownLM) February 6, 2015
Williams is less a newsman than a guy who plays one on TV. Ruggedly good-looking, older and white, he was the voice of reassurance in crisis, the heroic reporter who risked his safety in the pursuit of truth. But despite his carefully cultivated image and the “managing editor” title, can anyone imagine Williams staying up late pounding the phones? Or shooting off email after email asking for comment on a story? Except for the instances that call on Williams to play the role of reporter on camera, the actual work of gathering and sifting through information is done by underlings who get paid less than 1/100th of Williams’s $10 million yearly salary.
There’s been no shortage of gloating over Williams’ predicament. But we can’t blame him for the rise of the journo-entertainment complex on network news. Fueled by the drive for ratings, it’s abetted by a public that, put simply, likes being entertained. “There’s a demand for this sort of personage -- a master of short sentences and false certainties,” says Columbia Journalism professor Todd Gitlin. “Audience engagement in the cult of personality is what in the end makes it tick; it’s a closed loop of delusion.”
Williams’ mistake was not playing the edutainment game but overplaying his hand. Narrating the daring anchorman persona always entailed skirting the boundary between truth and fiction, between biography and myth. But the public would have been far more forgiving had the NBC anchor stretched the truth about his SAT score. We all tell fibs like that. But Americans’ reverence for the military -- the honor they heap on those who put themselves in harm’s way fighting our wars -- is only outmatched by their contempt for those who try to claim the mantle without earning it.
It’s probably true that, even after Williams returns, he can never again report on an armed conflict without having his credibility called into question. Even with a sincere, full-throated apology, unforgiving viewers will continue to call him a liar.
Perhaps, had the story not been so widely reported and commented on, six months would have been enough for everyone to forget about his big, dumb lie. But the very celebrity Williams courted guarantees it will follow him for the rest of his career.