I work on a treadmill of shameless self-promotion. Most mornings, I’ve tweeted before 6 a.m. When I’m not working on my column, I’m often blogging, posting on Facebook, jabbering on the radio (less often on TV) or speaking at a venue such as the Commonwealth Club of California.
I don’t want to bore anyone. I want people to like me — well, some people. So though I know that NBC News anchor Brian Williams had to take a leave of absence for six months — perhaps for good — to atone for concocting tall tales dirty with self-puffery, I also suspect that the handsome face of NBC News was under tremendous pressure to inflate his working persona. In 2015, it’s as important that top TV newscasters be a good story as it is that they report good stories. Maybe more important, as Williams showed courage in putting himself in a war zone.
Williams’ Chinook Down incident in Iraq occurred with other members of the network’s news team. Thus, Williams could not self-aggrandize without the consent — perhaps grudging consent — of his colleagues and the knowledge of higher-ups.
Ditto Williams’ fantastic claims, told to historian Douglas Brinkley, about his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Washington Post handily debunked Williams’ account of armed gangs breaking in to his hotel (the Ritz-Carlton) in New Orleans, where he saw a corpse floating on a French Quarter street and contracted dysentery. Witnesses say it’s all fiction.
Williams got caught in a changing media business. Journalists always had to pitch stories to their editors. Now, in the Internet age, they have to sell editors and everyone else. You have to draw “eyeballs.” Social media are a battlefield on which newsies have to scream to stand out.
Mission accomplished. For almost two weeks, cable news outlets have been able to ladle out servings of anchorman braggadocio. It will be years before the viewing public will be able to watch Williams talking about good journalism without scorn. That’s why he’s toast.
Williams said he misremembered when he said his helicopter was shot down. Hillary Clinton told her own foxhole fable when she was running for the White House in 2008. More than once, she said that during a 1996 trip to Bosnia, she landed under sniper fire and had to run with her head down for cover. Video of the event shows no such thing.
President Ronald Reagan claimed more than once that he shot footage of Nazi concentration camps, when in fact Reagan never left the United States during his wartime service in the U.S. Army film corps.
Does America have higher standards for journalists than it does for politicians? I don’t know, but it’s clear journalists have higher standards for their colleagues than for the politicians they cover. At the same time, TV journalists have to self-promote like politicians to stay in the game. So it should come as no surprise when a top newsman falls into the trap of believing his own publicity.
In journo-speak, anchors have to sell their “brand.” The downside of a brand is that it is a searing-hot instrument that, when used to pat oneself on the back, can burn.
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