Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brian Williams and the Future of News Broadcasting

Now that NBC has dropped a six-month suspension on NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams for fabricating a story about his experiences in Iraq, the Monday-morning quarterbacking has begun both about Williams’s apparent penchant for embellishment (which was supposedly well known, but never discussed) and whether he will ever be able to regain the trust of his viewers.

While these are natural questions to ask, they are small bore compared to the far more serious ones the media should be asking itself about its role in contemporary society. You see, while Williams’s offense was largely one of self-aggrandizement, the bigger, and more troubling issue is about how “the media” has largely sacrificed its role as neutral arbiter of fact-based reporting and become a small step removed from gossip and tabloid journalism.

In today’s culture, the coin of the realm is sniffing out hypocrisy and double standards. It did not take long for the Twitterverse to observe that Brian Williams’s suspension was a more severe punishment for anything having to do with the Iraq War than any suffered by a member of the Bush Administration that bent the truth over and over to convince America of the correctness of that war. Of course, the lies and cherry-picked intelligence spewed by the Bush Administration would have been blunted by a more skeptical media horde, but instead, a compliant press corps largely acted as stenographers for these falsehoods without questioning the veracity of their claims, to devastating results.

That no one was held to account for these lies is a far more egregious crime than any tall tale woven by a hairdo who sits behind a desk and reads off a TelePrompTer. And not only are people not held to account, but they appear on our TV screens over and over again. The ones who claimed Iraqis would great us as liberators or that WMD existed, that the fundamentals of our economy were strong (even as we were melting down), that Obamacare would destroy the economy, or that bailing out GM and Chrysler was a bad idea. There is literally no end to the willingness of “news” outlets to continue having people on TV who have been so wrong about so many things.

As for the politicians, they no longer need fear that anyone will seriously question them. Not when the moderator of Meet the Press concedes that he does not push his guests for fear they will no longer appear on his show or that guests can simply regurgitate pre-fabricated talking points without fear they will be fact checked by their hosts. Instead, they risk being turned into cable news fodder to fill out a news cycle if an aide’s odious tweets are exposed or they make an ill-advised comment about vaccinating your children.

On the other hand, crises of the day are elevated into the latest “-gate” while the solution is rarely reported with anywhere near the same level of attention or focus. The glitches that attended the roll-out of dominated the news for a week or more and then disappeared. That the website has been used by millions to get health coverage barely merits a mention, whereas the initial “rocky roll-out” caused Chuck Todd to demand an apology from the President of the United States. The list goes on and on, from Ebola to the Veterans Administration, relations between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD, children crossing the border from Mexico and many other stories in between hoover up precious airtime right up until the moment that the problem is solved or a new scandal erupts, at which point, you never hear about it again.  

This is not to say that a website should be glitchy or that relations between the Mayor of the country’s largest city and his police force do not matter, but the proportionality of the reporting is completely out of whack. Whether it’s a failure to acknowledge the numerous reports on how the Affordable Care Act is changing the delivery of health care in our country or how the economy has rebounded in a meaningful way, by giving “good news” such short shrift, the populace is harmed because they are left with an incomplete and inaccurate view of the world around them. On the other hand, taking 13 Iowa Democrats who do not like Hillary Clinton and turning that into a news story about her failure to connect with the base was actually a thing that was reported in The Washington Post.

So instead of hoisting Brian Williams on his own petard for being a smug prick who thought he could get away with making himself the hero in his very own war story, the media should spend a little more time looking at itself in the mirror and asking whether it is doing its job.
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