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“Today’s Anchors Are Overpaid Superstars”: Big Lies, Little Lies, And The Punishment Of Brian Williams

The harshest penalties usually tend to be brutal, vengeful, and excessive – even when the offender is a celebrity journalist like Brian Williams. Suspended without pay from his post as the NBC Nightly News anchor for six months, Williams may be facing the end of his career in television news, which would be roughly equivalent to capital punishment.

Williams is in the public dock for telling a false story about his experiences covering the American invasion of Iraq; the disclosure humiliated him, his colleagues, and his network when exposed. For the time being, at least, he has lost the trust of many in his audience. Enforced absence from the job he loves — and wanted all his life – is a sanction that will sting far more than the barbed jokes, ugly headlines, and lost millions in salary. Off air, he may find time to engage in serious introspection, issue a forthright apology, and hope for redemption.

Troubling as his transgression was, I nevertheless hope for his redemption too.

No doubt my sympathy is spurred by the fact that I have known Williams for a long time, not as a friend or even a newsroom colleague, but as a frequent guest on a nightly cable news show he hosted and, years later, as the author of a magazine profile of him.

What I encountered then was a witty and unassuming guy from south Jersey who kept many of the same friends he had 30 years ago; an exceptionally hard-working correspondent who took reporting seriously; a history buff who avidly consumed books and newspapers to broaden his knowledge; and a dedicated professional who cherished the anchor position as a trust handed down across generations.

He always knew how lucky he was, and he certainly knows how badly he has stumbled. Whether he eventually can regain what he has lost is a matter for him and the suits at NBC to sort out. Inevitably, their calculations will include commercial as well as journalistic values. While that process unfolds, however, he deserves a few words of defense against the eager mob of executioners now swinging the ax with such gusto.

It is ironic, to put it very mildly, that more than a decade after the Iraq invasion, which resulted from official and journalistic deceptions on a vast scale, the only individual deemed worthy of punishment is a TV newsman who inflated a war story on a talk show. And it is irritating, too, that so many of the NBC anchor’s harshest critics are heard on Fox News Channel, where lying is a way of life, as Leonard Pitts, Jr., noted recently.

To recall just one especially pertinent example: Fox host Sean Hannity, who now demands Williams’ head on a stick, repeatedly told TV and radio audiences that “every penny” from his Freedom Alliance concerts would benefit the children of deceased veterans. It was a lie, because huge amounts of the proceeds were squandered on “conferences” and other dubious expenses. But Hannity got away with it because he evidently hadn’t violated any laws.

All the wingnuts ceaselessly barking about how Williams betrayed the vets could not have cared less.

Indeed, it is puzzling that Williams has excited so much frothing anger on the right, where lying and deception are routinely excused, especially about military service. (George W. Bush prevaricated blatantly about his brief stint in the Texas Air National Guard, and Ronald Reagan lied about “liberating” a Nazi death camp — but nobody on the right cared much about that, either.) If anything, Williams is resolutely nonpartisan, and when I profiled him in 2008, he seemed slightly more enthusiastic about John McCain than Barack Obama. The son of a World War II Army captain, he idolized his father and has always venerated Americans in uniform – which may help to explain, along with a muddled memory and an apparent urge to embellish, how he fell into this current difficulty.

So far as anyone has determined, Williams is not guilty of the ultimate crime, which would be filing a false news report. His exaggerations all seem to have occurred on platforms other than the Nightly News. Widely repeated accusations by a far-right blogger that he puffed his award-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage with anecdotes about flooding and floating bodies remain unproven — and there is persuasive evidence supporting his remarks.

It was during Katrina’s aftermath that Williams memorably demonstrated how well he does his work. Vanity Fair was not alone in praising his performance, noting that he “exhibited unfaltering composure, compassion, and grit,” the culmination of decades in broadcast journalism.

Today’s anchors are overpaid superstars, fighting for attention in a world no longer dominated by network news, but none of that is his fault. And in contrast to many of the charming faces on television news programs, he is an actual journalist with a long record of unblemished reporting.

So unless something worse emerges from NBC’s investigation, I share the view of Joe Summerlin, one of the brave veterans who really did survive that Chinook shoot-down in 2003, and publicly refuted Williams’ Iraq tale. His wording wasn’t generous, but his attitude is.

“Everyone tells lies,” the war veteran told the New York Times. “Every single one of us. The issue isn’t whether or not you lie. It is how you deal with it once you are caught. I thank you for stepping down for a few nights, Mr. Williams. Now can you admit that you didn’t ‘misremember’ and perform a real apology? I might even buy you a beer.”

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, The National Memo, February 12, 2015

February 13, 2015 Posted by | Brian Williams, Journalists, Network Television | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Expect A Higher Standard From The Old Guard”: Brian Williams’ Lies Are Not Equal To Those Of Fox ‘News’

There’s this speech I give my students. Distilled, it goes like this.

“Your primary asset as a journalist is not your dogged curiosity, your talent for research or your ability to make prose sing on deadline. No, your one indispensable asset is your credibility. If you are not believable, nothing else matters.”

Which brings us, inevitably, to Brian Williams. The NBC Nightly News anchor saw his career crumple like used Kleenex last week after he repeated one time too many a story he has been telling for years: how a U.S. military helicopter on which he was a passenger was shot down over Iraq in 2003.

But the man who was flight engineer on that copter said on Facebook that Williams was never on it. Instead, he was on the one trailing it. Williams apologized for conflating the two, blaming the “fog” of memory.

The incident was remarkably similar to candidate Hillary Clinton’s false 2008 claim that she came under sniper fire as First Lady during a 1996 visit to Bosnia. As it turns out, an American dignitary was shot at in Bosnia — just not Clinton. Rather, it was then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, six months before.

Then, as now, one is tempted to ascribe the lapse to false memory, that phenomenon where you recall with clarity things that never happened. Then, as now, one is hampered by the sheer drama of the events in question. A person may honestly misremember eating at a certain restaurant or seeing a given movie. But you’d think you’d be pretty clear on whether or not somebody almost killed you.

So now, people are poring over old newscasts to determine whether this is an isolated incident. A statement by Williams of seeing bodies outside his hotel during Hurricane Katrina was initially mocked, but has been found on closer inspection to be more credible than first believed.

Fans of Fox “News,” at least to judge from my email queue, are having a ball with all this. I wrote a column a few weeks back blasting Fox for its habitual, ideology-driven inaccuracy. Attacking Fox is not for the faint of heart. Its viewers (like Rush Limbaugh’s listeners) tend to take it personally, responding with such a nasty, visceral outrage that a body might think you’d blasphemed their deity rather than criticized their news outlet. I savaged CNN in this space last year and while some folks took issue, no one called me a “bleephole” or invited me to “bleep” myself. With Fox fans, that’s the salutation.

So this latest news brings a flood of email crowing over Williams’ troubles and demanding I give him equal treatment.

As I wrote in the aforementioned column, serious people do not take Fox seriously. Indeed, consider the level of angst, the sense of expectations betrayed, that has attended Williams’ failure and ask yourself: Would there be a similar outpouring if someone at Fox had told this whopper?

Unlikely.

Fox is what Fox is, but its distortions and mendacities are generally only mistaken for gospel by a stratum of the electorate already predisposed to its bizarre worldview. The rest of us like to think we can expect a higher standard from the old guard of the news media, meaning the likes of CBS, NBC and The New York Times. And usually we can.

But every time that belief is betrayed — meaning not garden variety errors of fact, but catastrophic failures of journalistic integrity — the damage is exponentially greater precisely because the level of trust is exponentially higher. Such failures feed the disaffection and cynicism of a politically polarized nation where the universally accepted fact is an endangered species.

It’s a state of affairs that makes it hard to run a country. Or to be one.

So people asking that I give Brian Williams equal treatment are missing the point. If, indeed, he lied, then his sins are not equal to Fox’s.

They are worse.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr.,  Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, February 11, 2015

February 12, 2015 Posted by | Brian Williams, Fox News, Journalism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Media’s Military Malady”: Brian Williams’ Lies Are Symbolic Of The Media’s Too-Cozy Relationship With The Military

Brian Williams has come a cropper – a useful English expression for falling off your high horse. The NBC News anchor exposed a malady of the American news media, because he had the worst case of it. Deftly told tales of danger flared up on news and comedy shows, even on rival CBS and at a Rangers hockey game. More than any other leading anchor, the preening Williams acted like he was in show business. And he’s clearly smitten with the military, taking a cue from his predecessor Tom Brokaw, who wrote “The Greatest Generation,” the blockbuster book about the World War II generation. In peacetime, Brokaw started a process of glowing (retro) war coverage with his valedictory book.

Williams furthered that fawning trend when he took over the chair as the “NBC Nightly News” standard-bearer. But the stakes were higher, because suddenly, it was wartime. The longest wars in our history, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were upon us. And all the world was a stage for his stand-ups.

Since 9/11, Williams and many in the media became too cozy and close with the military. I mean, literally, too close, sharing fatigues, meals and living space. But the volunteer military has a job to do and so do people in the press covering wars. They are best kept at a distance. In the Vietnam War, the press was confrontational and skeptical of the Pentagon – and properly so. The daily press briefing was dubbed “the Five O’Clock Follies.” Reporters knew the government was telling lies every day. The two Iraq wars were covered like sporting events at first, with broadcast and print media cheerleading the invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago. The stories they missed on the job have filled many books, such as Thomas Ricks’ “Fiasco.”

The broadcast media seemed happy to befriend the military and hang out in tanks and helicopters with them for visual color. It became cool to “embed” in the desert – an approach the Pentagon encouraged and put into place with the brief first Gulf War. Thus the Pentagon shrewdly seduced the media in an “embed” embrace. Some correspondents who embedded died along the way, including David Bloom of NBC News and Michael Kelly of the The New Republic. It all seemed futile, being along for a ride. In a dusty foreign desert, it’s hard to break great stories about people whom you think are protecting your life.

“Four birds in the desert.” Williams used such vivid language to describe being aboard one of four Chinook helicopters as the Iraq War was getting underway in 2003. One “bird” was hit. He tells the story well, except it wasn’t true. He spoke on a comedy show about it and tried to hide his false pride at surviving an “RPG” attack, as if everyone talks that way. The helicopter Williams was on did not come under fire, but what’s the difference between friends? Williams rubbed shoulders with soldiers in uniform, and perhaps felt he could share their valor.

But he was supposed to be one of us – the press. To be clear, I worked at CBS News as my first journalism job. In network news, I’ve seen the best in action and perhaps I judge Williams too harshly. His survival shall largely depend on ratings. Whatever happens, the cautionary note here: A string of tall tales went on for years unchecked by Williams’ peers at the best networks and newspapers, as well as the usual chorus of media critics.

Ironically, a respected military newspaper finally turned Williams in for his on-air fibbing. Travis Tritten, a Stars and Stripes reporter, said discontent had been building up for years with Williams’ rash storytelling. “We were there to give them a voice,” he said, referring to those in the armed forces and veterans. A military newspaper did the work and got the story straight. The lines between civilian and military became bright and clear here. For that, we in the Fourth Estate should be grateful and humbled.

 

By: Jamie Stiehm, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, February 9, 2015

February 10, 2015 Posted by | Brian Williams, Journalism, U. S. Military | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Brian Williams’ Tangled Web”: If I Were Williams, I’d Get Out The Resume Or Check My Retirement Portfolio

None of us is without sin, but still, you have to wonder how this sort of thing happens (per Stars & StripesTravis Tritten):

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.

Williams repeated the claim Friday during NBC’s coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for a retired soldier that had provided ground security for the grounded helicopters, a game to which Williams accompanied him. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, he said he had misremembered the events and was sorry.

The admission came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said.

“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

I guess the “conflated” account of Williams being under fire became part of his official “bio,” and couldn’t be de-conflated until someone finally blew the whistle. I can’t even begin to assess what the punishment should be for this deception, but if I were Williams, I’d get out the resume or check my retirement portfolio.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, February 6, 2015

February 8, 2015 Posted by | Brian Williams, Journalism, Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Anecdotal Journalism At Its Worse”: Every News Story Has Two Sides, Except, Apparently Obamacare

The rocky rollout of Obamacare has prompted commentators to attack the president and his team for having three years to plan for the launch and still not getting it right. That’s a legitimate critique as problems persist. But the same can be said for an awful lot of reporters doing a very poor job covering Obamacare. They also had three years to prepare themselves to accurately report the story.

So what’s their excuse?

The truth is, the Beltway press rarely bothers to explain, let alone cover, public policy any more. With a media model that almost uniformly revolves around the political process of Washington (who’s winning, who’s losing?), journalists have distanced themselves from the grungy facts of governance, especially in terms of how government programs work and how they effect the citizenry.

But explaining is the job of journalism. It’s one of the crucial roles that newsrooms play in a democracy. And in the recent case of Obamacare, the press has failed badly in its role. Worse, it has actively misinformed about the new health law and routinely highlighted consumers unhappy with Obamacare, while ignoring those who praise it.

As Joshua Holland noted at Bill Moyers’ website, “lazy stories of “sticker shock” and cancellations by reporters uninterested in the details of public policy only offer the sensational half of a complicated story, and that’s providing a big assist to opponents of the law.”

It’s part of a troubling trend. Fresh off of blaming both sides for the GOP’s wholly-owned, and thoroughly engineered, government shutdown, the press is now botching its Obamacare reporting by omitting key facts and context — to the delight of Republicans. It’s almost like there’s a larger newsroom pattern in play.

And this week the pattern revolved around trying to scare the hell out of people with deceiving claims about how Obamacare had forced insurance companies to “drop” clients and how millions of Americans had “lost” their coverage.

Not quite.

Insurance companies informed some customers that plans that didn’t meet minimum standards required by Obamacare would be phased out. But the part often obscured or downplayed in breathless “cancellation” news reports is that consumers are able to shop for new plans that in many cases are superior to the old ones, and often less expensive (or partially paid for by subsidies). In other words, they’re transitioning from one plan to another.

It’s understandable why right-wing partisan voices only interested in trashing Obamacare and damaging the president would push claims, as Breitbart.com recently did, that nearly one million Californians have “lost” their insurance because of the new law. (They didn’t.) It’s less clear why mainstream reporters would traffic in that same kind of misleading claims.

Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher has been methodically dissecting erroneous and painfully misleading Obamacare reports this week. He concluded one big problem is “a reliance on consumers who aren’t insurance experts, and reporters who aren’t much better.”

Reporters, and especially television reporters, seem anxious to interview consumers who have been notified by letter that their insurance policy has been canceled and who say they’re shocked to find out how expensive purchasing a new plan will be.

But as Christopher discovered, that’s often not the case and that consumers and reporters either don’t understand the options that are available, or haven’t researched the issue enough. (Christopher was able to find much less expensive plans for several consumers touted in TV reports.) That’s because (surprise!) the cost of new insurance plans quoted in letters sent by insurance companies often don’t represent the lowest option available via the open exchange.

Just look at the now-infamous CBS report about Florida resident Dianne Barrette who complained her premium under Obamacare would increased tenfold, from $54 a month to $591 a month. (She was quickly invited onto Fox News to tell her tale.) But a woman paying just $54 a month for health insurance didn’t set off any red flags among editors at CBS News? Barrette’s health plan — the best she could afford — was a barely-there “junk health insurance” policy that didn’t cover hospitalization, ambulance service, or prescription drugs.

Left unsaid by CBS, as Holland reported, was the fact that under Obamacare Barrette qualified “for a bronze plan, which guarantees free preventive care and coverage for hospitalizations, for only $97 per month — one-sixth of that headline number that’s making the rounds.”

Meanwhile, NBC Nightly News profiled another so-called Obamacare “sticker shock” victim and detailed how Deborah Cavallaro’s monthly premium would go up from $293 to $484. (She appeared on CNBC to repeat her Obamacare complaints.) But then American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman did some online shopping and found a plan that Cavallaro qualified for and cost $258 per-month, $35 less than the plan that’s being canceled.

“If you find someone who’s going to end up paying more thanks to Obamacare, fair enough,” wrote Waldman. “Run with the story. But first, you’d better perform the due diligence to find out what a comparable plan really costs.” (Still, lots of reporters don’t.)

Christopher noted another glaring omission from the ongoing reporting: “None of these reports take the extra step of explaining the tremendous benefits of the Affordable Care Act, for which most reasonable people wouldn’t necessarily mind a bit of a tradeoff.”

Also, absent from virtually all the reports is the acknowledgement that insurance companies canceling existing plans in the individual market and consumers being forced to join new ones is not an unusual occurrence. At all.

Obamacare coverage has often been anecdotal journalism at its worst, simply because it’s been the same one anecdote told over and over and over.

One CBS report acknowledged, “Industry experts say about half the people getting the letters will pay more — and half will pay less, thanks to taxpayer subsidies.” If that’s the case, where are the television news reports featuring the “half” who will soon be paying less for health insurance thanks to Obamacare?

Maybe I’ve just missed them all? But for this news viewer the pattern seems unmistakable: Consumers who might have to pay more (or more accurately, consumers who think they might have to pay more) are welcomed before the cameras to tell their understandably frustrating tales.

In his bad-news Obamacare report featuring three frustrated health care consumers, CNN’s Drew Griffin admitted that he didn’t even bother looking for success stories. Instead, as host Anderson Cooper explained, because Obama had given a speech extolling the benefits of Obamacare, it was CNN’s and Griffin’s job to “counter against that.”

And then there was the absurd CBS report which highlighted one man’s complaint that under Obamacare all insurance plans must provide maternity care coverage. As Media Matters noted, instead of interviewing a beneficiary of the maternity coverage, CBS highlighted a man upset that his plan included the key benefit.

The media rule has been hard to miss: Consumers who have complaints about Obamacare are much, much more newsworthy than those who have praise.

By the way, in case anyone is interested, here are some examples of Obamacare fans (who have been highlighted by local media outlets and personal online postings):

* Phil Sherburne in Salt Lake City purchased health insurance for his family of five for just $123 per-month.

* California mechanic and small business owner Rakesh Rikhi purchased $500-a-month health insurance, helping him save $5,000 each year.

* Katie Klabusich sometimes paid more for health insurance each month than she did for rent, and bounced around from bad plan to bad plan. Now thanks to Obamacare she has solid health insurance. Or, “HOLY SHIT I HAVE COMPREHENSIVE MEDICAL COVERAGE STARTING IN TEN WEEKS!”, as Klabusich wrote on her blog.

Every news story has two sides. Except, apparently, Obamacare.

 

By: Eric Boehlert, Media Matters For America, October 30, 2013

November 1, 2013 Posted by | Media, Obamacare, Press | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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