What’s Really Behind the Brian Williams Matter

Like most controversies, the Brian Williams matter—his embellishment of stories he covered for NBC Nightly News, his “mis-remembering” of events—has most people firmly on one side or the other.

For some, these were honest mistakes and Brian Williams deserves a pass. For others, his journalistic integrity is compromised and he should not be reinstated at Nightly News.

A mentor of mine once explained to me how it was important to distinguish, in a dialogue, between heat, which generates polarizing arguments that aren’t offered to identify a solution, and light, which at least has the capacity to shed some truth on an issue. Here’s an attempt to offer a perspective on the Brian Williams matter through the lens of the new media culture that has emerged in the digital age.

I think it was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show who said the problem for Brian Williams was he was providing content (an interesting storyline) in the era of “infotainment,” the merging of news with entertainment.

Ironic that Jon Stewart would cite this as an issue since The Daily Show aims to entertain and inform, which is good, but makes it vulnerable to the kind of story inflation that Brian Williams now regrets.

But Stewart is on to something— it is becoming more difficult all the time to distinguish truth from entertainment and, by extension, journalists from entertainers. If you are going to run for president, in fact if you are president, stopping by The Daily Show is as essential as talking about pork bellies during the Iowa caucus season.

Am I the only one who is offended by CNN, MSNBC and other on-air cable TV journalists appearing in the Netflix megahit House of Cards (in spite of the fact that I really love the show)? The fictional characters frequently appear with real-life journalists in telling the story of Frank Underwood’s Washington DC.

This blurring of the lines can lead to some absurdity.

In Game Change, the HBO film about the 2008 presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain, there’s a scene where the actor Woody Harrelson (Woody Harrelson!), playing the part of McCain campaign manger Steve Schmidt, is interviewed on CNN about McCain’s decision to include Sarah Palin on the ticket by the real Anderson Cooper… Anderson Cooper!

No one in journalism seems to have a problem with this—likely that they, and their bosses, know it is good for the CNN and NBC brands, and that the audience watching represents the critical 25-54 age demographic that advertisers covet.

The blurring of history with fiction may even have its roots in the great filmmaker Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK. For those of you who remember the film, Stone liberally used historical facts, sprinkled with conspiratorial fantasy (the CIA killed Kennedy), but the film masterfully comes off as fact. I worry that anyone not alive during the assassination and the decade after when conspiracy theories were abundant, and later debunked, think the movie was actual history.

The new age of infotainment picked up steam a year later, in 1992, when then Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, at the time sagging in the polls, donned shades and played saxophone on the late night Arsenio Hall Show (way before Arsenio humbled himself on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice—talk about the blurring of reality). This was a radical departure back then for a candidate; now it is standard fare to see presidential candidates, and their media savvy advisors, feeling the need to be part of the late night entertainment circuit.

And during the McCain-Obama battle for the White House, there was comedian/actress Tina Fey right in the middle of the campaign, playing Sarah Palin on the iconic Saturday Night Live to rave reviews—prompting the real Sarah Palin to appear on the show. After all, voters would be watching.

So where does this leave us? In a really different world, slipping down the slippery slope of what is real and what isn’t. In the long run maybe it’s ok, as long as we are still able to distinguish between truth and fiction. Just ask Brian Williams.


Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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