Brian Williams has wrapped up his first year anchoring the “NBC Nightly News,” and he is presenting himself as this year’s new face of the TV news kingdom. He’s a knight on a white horse raging against poverty and indifference, especially in the poorer sections of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. He believes the issues of race, class, oil, war, and the environment make Katrina the “monumental story of modern times.”
The NBC anchor shared his thoughts with Howard Kurtz on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” Kurtz asked the obvious question: Has Williams become a crusader? “I don’t think so,” said Williams. But, wait, Kurtz pointed out, you signed off the other night in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans saying “This is a neighborhood that’s been left to die.” Kurtz suggested the anchor’s message “is government is not doing enough,” to which Williams responded, “I’ll let others reach those kinds of sweeping conclusions.”
Now what kind of conclusion is more sweeping than the assertion that a corner of the Crescent City has been “left to die”?
Kurtz noted conservatives have expressed outrage because attacking the federal response “was a way of bashing the Bush administration,” but Williams disagreed. “This story to me is not about President George W. Bush as much as it is about human suffering, about what happened to our country.” In Williams’ view, government is less trustworthy than reporters on the scene. “We were told one truth by government officials in some cases, and yet we were standing next to the truth. And so we spoke up about it. We were looking at the contrary view.”
To Williams, the words “media” and “truth” are interchangeable: “few things [are] done any better in this country than media attention when it's focused.” Here’s an example of that: on September 2, this was Williams, selecting one anecdote to describe reaction to an early Bush visit: “One of the major radio stations still broadcasting chose not to broadcast his [Bush’s] remarks, saying at one point, nothing he could say could ever help them deal with the dire situation unfolding live in the streets of New Orleans, where people were still dying during his visit."
Truth? It was NBC and MSNBC that tremendously hyped Mayor Ray Nagin’s “Today” show estimate of 10,000 dead in New Orleans. It was MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough who asked Williams why President Bush would address the nation in prime time from an area unaffected by flooding while the anchorman was “reporting from a major American city where young children died of dehydration out on sidewalks.” Not to be outdone, Williams lectured: “I hope the lesson of this is not that my son and daughter at home have been assigned a different value as humans in the United States than their equivalents here in New Orleans.”
How can the viewer not conclude that media hearts pound so much faster for the suffering than do the hearts of those callous Bushies?
Williams, like CNN’s new evening star Anderson Cooper, is showing the new anchorman model is based on being the nation’s leading bleeding heart, the one who cannot be out-compassioned in his pursuit of federal aid for disaster victims. These anchors are not only crusaders, but the crusade is more important than the truth.
Within three weeks, it became apparent that the much-extolled media passion got far ahead of the facts. But Williams was still interviewing New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin last week, and asked only vaguely about mistakes that were made – without asking about or even acknowledging Nagin’s wild exaggerations on NBC. That came after Williams asked if the mayor was doing enough to rouse Washington for more federal money: “Are you making enough noise? Do you have noise makers on your staff? Do you feel like shouting from the mountain tops?” Make noise, not news, is the Williams motto.
As Williams was doing his compassion dance, ABC announced his new competition in the evening-news wars. They will try an anchor duo of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, who also may put passion ahead of precision. Woodruff drew attention in June for his trip inside Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, where he quoted 11-year-old children saying they knew Americans as “killers” of Koreans. He later had to admit they were forced to use the communist government’s translators, so the quotes may have been doctored. “Access before accuracy” – now there’s a new ABC motto for you.
With shrinking viewership, you can see why anchormen might find passion to be a formula for audience retention. But one reason the audience is shrinking is that some viewers see passion getting ahead of fairness and accuracy, and advocacy trumping reporting. And the ultimate casualty in this new formulation is the Holy Grail of journalism: the truth.