Lowering the bar: Why the Brian Williams debacle is the new normal for news

Jim McKairnes

Jim McKairnes.

By Jim McKairnes
Lecturer, Temple University School of Media and Communications at Temple University In Philadelphia

We all know the chronology of the Brian Williams saga now: A story Williams has been telling for 12 years, in which he was caught under enemy fire while covering the invasion of Iraq, turns out to be less than true. As anchor of the NBC Nightly News, Williams was forced to offer an on-air apology.

Too little, too late, said critics. Unprofessional and unconscionable they cried. Ten days after the story broke, NBC suspended their star for six months. Credibility was at stake – the network’s, and Williams’.

Now, with the imbroglio back-burnered until summer – or at least through the end of this sentence, knowing the constantly-shifting landscape of the media business – there’s one big unanswered question.

Whom, exactly, are we kidding?

TV news long ago gave up its claim to credibility; its anchors (among them one-time Saturday Night Live host/frequent 30 Rock guest star Williams) to infallibility. These days, Williams is part of a new breed of anchor: equal parts personality/entertainer/newsreader, willing if not encouraged to cross lines that the likes of Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw never dared to approach. Perhaps they’re even unaware there’s a line in the first place – how else to view ABC’s David Muir hugging Apple CEO Tom Cook, on camera, before their World News Tonight interview last year?

The Williams controversy is likely the result of what’s been bubbling up for years. In 1976 Barbara Walters received a million dollars to transfer jobs from NBC to ABC, and it’s gone downhill from there. Nowadays we want those reading the news to be as interesting as the news itself, or more so. Williams may represent the new New Normal.

“Brian Williams is the necessary evil of the entire circus of confusion that’s TV news today,” media observer Jeff Ritter noted on WESA public radio right after the scandal broke.

The point is a good one: In the lofty offices of evening broadcasts, pulpits from which news was once orated have been replaced by HiDef soundstages, walk-and-talk newsreaders, handheld cameras and dramatic video walls that scream alliterative wordplay. It’s about distraction and attraction – all of which is fine, by the way. It’s necessary for ratings, for survival in a world where viewers have grown indifferent to TV news. Producers and executives need to appeal to the increasingly more restless younger demographic – at least, that’s what those behind the news tell themselves.

But few can credibly call their half-hour broadcasts any more “news.” They are news shows, in which the news portion long ago took a back seat. So let’s not be so quick to throw shade on stars that do what it takes to be part of the show. The selling of personality is also key to ratings success.

TV news long ago gave up its claim to credibility; its anchors to infallibility. These days, Williams is part of a new breed of anchor: equal parts personality/entertainer/newsreader.

TV news today amounts to the Sunday edition of a big-city newspaper, full of stale headlines that front interviews and features, affixed with labels like “Person of the Week” (ABC); “Making a Difference” (NBC); and “On the Road” (CBS) – not a lick of which is news. This is a world in which after CNN had wrung the dry mop that was last year’s Malaysia airliner disappearance and one of its own ringmasters reported that there was nothing new to report – that the story continued on air anyway as viewers were exhorted to tweet questions asking where the plane might be.

Over on Fox and NBC, verbal cage-matches reign. Personality over content. What’s CNBC’s biggest new hit? Reruns of ABC’s Shark Tank. As for the morning shows – all produced by news divisions – they’re full of segments devoted to the Speed Feed and Heat Index (ABC) or Trending Today (NBC) or showing Good Morning America anchors starring in mashups of Oscar-nominated films. Today once showed a music video featuring the now-banished Williams. A GMA reporter once allowed himself to be buried under snow, telling viewers, “This is really frickin’ scary” as he vanished. (Didn’t Edward R. Murrow say that about the London Blitz?)

MacNeil-Lehrer News Report this ain’t.

Is what Williams is alleged to have done – beef up his story to be more entertaining – icky? Is it conduct unbecoming? Sure. Is his Zelig behavior criminal? No – in some ways, it’s what we all have been asking for years. After the suspension former CNN correspondent Mark Feldstein suggested in the International Business Times that the newsman might star in a variety series or do comedy if not invited back to the anchor’s chair, a comment that speaks volumes.

Anchors, entertainers. Tomato, tomahto. Maybe it’s even time for everyone involved to think what’s called “news broadcasting” in the first place. Certainly Jon Stewart’s fans have.

Less than a half hour after Today solemnly reported on the Williams suspension in its Feb. 11 broadcast, with anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie suggesting that news standards were at stake, the pair were on to the next big story: reminding viewers to stay tuned for the latest on Wrangler, the morning show’s “Puppy with a Purpose.”

So let me ask again – whom are we kidding?

Author and lecturer Jim McKairnes is a former longtime CBS Television executive. Currently he holds the position of Verizon Chair for the School of Media and Communications at Temple University In Philadelphia. He lives in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words and in targeted Q&As, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at RDawn (@) cynopsis.com

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