Brian Williams didn’t break stories. He didn’t investigate corruption. He was no gumshoe. His lofty, wealthy, TV-star spot in our culture violated the dictum of crusading Chicago reporter, Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), who said a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Williams defined comfortable, at $10 million per year. Strictly speaking he was not a journalist so much as a brand. He was a human logo for a journalism organization: the NBC News brigade of mostly anonymous and modestly paid diggers and scratchers who stayed up late getting things right while Williams swanned around on Letterman.
He had one job. To present and sell the work of real reporters and maintain believability in NBC News.
Williams must be a lot less comfortable now. He appears to have screwed up his one job virtually irretrievably.
Friend, you’re making $10 million per year, 100 to 150 times as much as the average real TV journalist. You’re famous. You win the ratings. You swim in a warm ego bath of attention and accolades. You don’t have to actually report stories; producers thrust their reporting and writing into your hands for you to recite like you came up with it yourself. You got it made. The one main thing you have to do is… not make stuff up.
So, naturally, like a Greek tragic figure, the flawed Olympian elitist with the strong but endearingly off-beam chin has to go out and make stuff up.
It is bad enough that Brian Williams kicked a big, undeserved dent in the credibility of NBC News. It is bad enough that viewers are draining away from TV news and he’s accelerated that trend by encouraging the view that anchors are phony or superfluous. The big irony is that Internet news – so much of which is off-kilter, narrowly tribal, unverifiable, or plain deranged – creates a ready market for trusted editors who verify and synthesize information. That’s the vital service of an “anchor” in this era, not to flash a wry, plucky smile. We need objective, truth-telling editors like crazy. Social media makes them more important, not less.
Social media is also what nailed Brian Williams. The truth-telling editor who got him was an Army chopper pilot posting on Facebook. Williams’ exit says nothing about real reporters, but ought to make everyone look more skeptically about rich, remote celebrities who act the role of reporters. The Internet era demands authenticity and punishes those who fall short. Especially when they fall from the top.