Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Friday, February 13, 2015

What Brian Williams' Downfall Means to American Media Today

"Boy, that escalated quickly.  I mean that really got out of hand fast!" - Ron Burgundy in Anchorman

By now most of you have heard at least part of this story: Brian Williams, long tenured host of NBC Nightly News, the lurking zombie version of the newscasts of Cronkite and Murrow long ago, has been suspended for six months without pay for embellishing a story about being shot down in Iraq during the 2003 invasion.  I repeat this only for context, and I apologize.  To be blunt this story has been covered to death, and to put it gently it's mildly annoying at this point.  And today, when fresh allegations surfaced that Williams, once again, was caught in a braggadocious lie told to David Letterman during an appearance on his show, I had to roll my eyes one more time and finally put virtual pen to paper to comment on the whole mess.

First off let me repeat what many of you, the ones who pay closer attention than most, have likely already said: how is this news?  How is the revelation that a man whose job it is to prop up a dead method to deliver nightly current news, as if such programs are still appointment viewing in this country for anyone under the age of 65, is at best an "embellisher" and at worst a wanton liar surprising in the least?  Have the other navel gazing members of the media in this country, the ones breathlessly expressing shock and dismay at a man seemingly torpedoing his credibility whilst giving repeated verbal affirmations that their own is nothing short of righteous and true by comparison, simply forgotten what we in the real world see when we see them?  Or are they just that ignorant of the true nature of their business, and their own place in the sideshow?

The fact that "mainstream news," and by that I mean the main news divisions of NBC, ABC and CBS, and let's say CNN also, is now expected to be a driver of ratings and accordingly changed into a reliable source of exaggeration, embellishment, fear and Chicken Little levels of irrational paranoia is old hat, and old news.  While "news people" tell me they, and only they, are the one and only source of the 100% true news in the world, it's a lie we're all trained to see as a lie.  So why is taking that idea one step further, that this guy truly "lives" his lies in a slightly more public way, such a shocking thing to these dolts?  Why is Wolf Blitzer, he of the "so poor, so black," and other simple-minded gaffes, beating down my door to tell me how outrageous it is that Williams bent the truth?  Why does CNN likely now have a team of producers tracking down everything Williams ever said looking for other fibs to report?  Why are people now piling on for him to be fired with a zeal that almost looks like it's rooted in abject fear for their own credibility?

Jon Stewart had his fun with this story of course, and an unexpected defense came from Bill O'Reilly during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and both of these are very explanatory in different ways.  Stewart's point is obvious: you're piling onto a man caught in a lie when the very war he lied about should never have happened in the first place?  A war that happened after one of the most disgusting examples of media war drumbeating not seen since the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars?  During which the outright lies and fabrications produced by the Bush administration were dutifully reported as cold, hard and inescapable facts?  You're kidding me, right?  We expected this from the propaganda machine that is Fox News, but I suppose no one should have been surprised when the other "mainstream" networks wanted in on the fun.

O'Reilly's defense of Williams was interesting, especially when he said the "adrenaline" of war reporting "can cause anchors to embellish."  Did he just say a tad more than he should have from an industry insider point of view?  Did he tacitly admit that in the flurry of battle, during a really "important" historical moment, facts tend to take a back seat to action and "adrenaline?"  Maybe it's just me but I always pictured these guys framing just the right shot for a stand-up to make it look as interesting and dangerous as possible, possibly even to the point of "staging" such a shot if it didn't exist naturally.  Maybe I'm just so jaded by coming up during the "reality TV era" that I just assume most of what I see is conditioned to elicit the highest level of response from me, whether it's anger, fear, outrage, excitement or all four, but I always assumed this was true.

So what exactly are we all talking about?  Like Jon Stewart asked, is this a moment of self-reflection when the media tries a bit harder to really give us the news and not just the most attention grabbing headlines?  Will facts become important over fluff once again?  Will anything substantially change, or are we just all pretending to be outraged until the story has run its course?  Because the jaded side of me thinks it's just the latter.  Next week we'll all pretend to be outraged about something else or some other scapegoat, I suppose.

And so it goes.



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