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Archive for February, 2015

At the Intersection of Jon Stewart and Brian Williams

Friday, February 13th, 2015

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Jersey BoysBrian Douglas Williams and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz both went to high school in New Jersey and held common, low-level jobs before working their way to the top of their respective, and interrelated, professions.

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“Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” —Jon Stewart on Brian Williams, The Daily Show, Feb. 9, 2015

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Last week we wrote a piece in defense of Brian Williams, little realizing it was probably already too late, even as other revelations of his storytelling were coming forth, and the social media pile-on was getting heavier by the minute. Then, this Tuesday, Feb. 10, we learned that not only is Williams being put on a six-month, unpaid leave by NBC management, but, even more distressing, Brian’s friend and ours, the widely beloved Jon Stewart, has announced that later this year he’ll step down from his anchor desk on The Daily Show at Comedy Central’s “World News Headquarters in New York,” the job he has held for 16 years. (“Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show”)

It seems to say something about the nature of our society and culture these days that as Jon Stewart announces his departure, a satirical comedian is very likely the most trusted source in news—at least to an entire, younger generation to whom the name Brian Williams is, maybe, vaguely familiar. As media columnist David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”

(In more sad news this week,  David Carr himself died just last night at The New York Times after hosting a Times Talks conversation at The New School in New York with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden about the new film Citizenfour, directed by Poitras. Click here for a clip of that Times Talks appearance.)

jonstewartDave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote, “For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.”

Just think about that for a minute: Cronkite and Murrow. We’d agree, it’s a fair comparison.

As Jason Zinoman of the Times wrote in “A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor”:

“The Daily Show” didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.  [emphasis added]

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Surely the status of being the most trusted man in news is one that Brian Williams wanted for himself, and it may once have been possible, but now that trust may be irretrievable. Further revelations have appeared about Williams’s whoppers, fabrications, outright lies, that make it hard to insist that he should be allowed to stay in his big chair. Even as we went to press with our piece last Friday (we learned later), The Guardian was reporting that New Orleans residents were calling into question some of Brian Williams’s tales about his time covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—some of the very coverage for which we were expressing gratitude.

We said last week, “We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.” A comment from AdHack on the cross-posting of “In Defense of Brian Williams” at Daily Kos answered that quite clearly:

It’s coming out now because Williams told his dishonest recollection of being shot down last Friday, after repeatedly being warned by NBC brass to stop it, and a bunch of military veterans called him on it, which was reported by Stars & Stripes and then picked up by other media. The question really should be: Why did it take so long for this to get out? Veterans have been trying to get out the truth for quite some time. 

Thanks to AdHack for that clarification. We have not found other sources attesting that NBC executives had told Williams to stop telling the tale about being shot down, but AdHack seems to know what he’s talking about.

Not the Only Tale-Teller with a Big Megaphone

We agree, though, with a Carla Wallach of Greenwich, Conn., the writer of a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Feb. 12:

How sad that the NBC brass couldn’t see that all the brouhaha regarding the news anchor Brian Williams had nothing to do with his work. His fudging the truth regarding the helicopter incident was nearly an act of personal vanity, which is not a rarity among celebrities. So he was not on the helicopter that was fired on, as he claimed, but in one behind it: that’s close enough to death for me. A six-month suspension is too severe. People will have forgotten about the incident in less ethan a month. I will be among those welcoming him back. 

Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTrue, it doesn’t seem fair, especially when you consider the massive lies told in recent years and decades by government officials—too numerous to mention—and that there is an entire network with “News” in its name that does nothing but lie and distort, 24/7. But NBC Nightly News is and should be held to a higher standard of integrity. (See “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” at The New Republic.)

We just hope we’ll see Brian Williams back on the job in not too long a time. And, again, the attention he helped bring to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was needed then and is needed still.

On a happier note, it’s Mardi Gras time, y’all (Tuesday, Feb. 17). Let the good times roll . . .

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Further Reading

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note” (NYT 2/11/15)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor” (NYT 2/10/15)

Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths: Brian Williams’s and Jon Stewart’s Common Ground,” by David Carr, New York Times (2/11/15)

Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents,” The Guardian (2/6/15)

NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” Stars and Stripes (2/4/15)

Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show” (NYT 2/11/15)

Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage” (NYT 2/11/15)

Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” by Nicole Hemmer, The New Republic (2/13/15)

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Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend

Friday, February 6th, 2015

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Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).

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Click here for a news media contact list.

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With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)

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