Not really. But now I’ve got your attention. I know I’m probably not the person to ask, because I haven’t watched nightly network news since McNeil ,Lehrer, Gergen, Shields and Hunter-Gault. Somewhere around the time when The McLaughlin Group got started, I found TV news becoming distinctly unpleasant, and by the promotion of Chris Matthews it became unwatchable and an insult to my intelligence. At that point I began to wonder about the brains of those second-raters I had respected up until that point, namely George Will and Wolf Blitzer. So by the time that Bernard Shaw left CNN, I called the entire industry’s time of death. Apparently, the zombies have still been marching on. There is only Brian Lamb and those who work for him and Charlie Rose. That’s not an industry, that’s a set of unique individuals with broadcast clout perched on the head of a dinosaur sinking into the ooze.
So the news of the demise of the Brian Williams (isn’t his daughter a porn star?) comes to my ears as an opportunity to ask the question of why television news anchors matter so much. It seems to me that if there are any arguments about the informed quality of the public in a democracy, then the more seriously they should be taken, the more fragile that process is when tied to such cults of personality.
If you, like me, are not an ideologue, then few things bother you as much as giant posters on buildings with the smiling portrait of a ‘great leader’. What is the nightly news but that? The nightly news is a subtle indoctrination which aims to get you the viewer to select their idol / icon as the only one you can really trust to tell you what you need to know. Not the truth, but what they think you think you need to know. They do a pretty good job. Don’t believe me, just watch. I mean, whom do you watch? What is your favorite news outlet? You have one, don’t you? Well, maybe not. Maybe you are a sophisticated consumer of news and information and you get all of that from a wide variety of credible sources whom you skeptically but open-mindedly observe. That’s a good thing. The more you do so, the less you probably care about the fate of Brian Williams.
I’m sure I’ve only watched him for about five minutes on the David Letterman show in the past ten years. He impressed me as someone who is much smarter than the role he fulfills as a TV News Anchor Leader Icon Idol. He’s probably the best in the world at that job, especially considering that nobody else really gets to do it. So he’s a king. His fate matters.
I understand that Lester Holt is replacing him for the time being. Chances are that he’ll do a very good job. Even I remember Lester Holt from a very long time ago. A workable succession plan is always a good idea for your institution. But what’s really smart is for Williams’ & Holt’s bosses to put Williams out of the picture for six months. It was the advice I gave to Bill Cosby, not that he listened to me, but it’s really the smartest thing to do. Why?
Because people who have no real thought behind their news & info consumption do so out of habit, and the worst thing for a habit is a cold turkey shutdown. You understand that Brian Williams and his network don’t really earn your viewership, they assume it. There are very few reasons why they would bring attention to the quality of Williams’ gig. You trust him and you will continue to trust him because millions of people trust him because he’s Brian Williams. He’s a brand. He’s what that network does, for 20 years of tradition, or something like that. Only a massive scandal would break that simple habit of trust. So how long do you think the other networks would let that opportunity pass? So Williams is out, because the scandal cannot be ignored – that’s what the networks do, scandal. The best way to kill it to get the stink out of the room, and move on with the show. Key phrase: ‘Move On’.
There’s an old nautical term that you probably didn’t know was a nautical term. ‘The cat is out of the bag’. The cat being referred to is the cat-o-nine-tails, a whip that was used on old sailing ships to discipline wayward sailors. It was carried in a leather bag, and if there was room enough to swing a cat, then it would be employed on the whipping boy. Today’s TV news audiences, addicted accustomed as they have become to the short attention span theater high quality production that is the nightly news, will have had many dozens of dramatic news events to consume over the next six months. Surely some of them will create the kind of frenzy that will make Williams’ fake war stories seem quaint by comparison. Soon enough, the details will be forgotten and only the simplified scandal meme will remain. Either way, Brian Williams’ public flogging is a service to that audience (as contrasted with an actual public service) and six months is an appropriate sentence. In fact, I’m rather impressed that they delivered that smackdown so swiftly. Six months from now, a simple apology will suffice, because the punishment was dealt.
On the contra side, I think there remains some excellent use of centralized, authoritative distribution of important information. Mass media can indeed serve excellent purposes. For example, it would be an actual public service for the media to massacre the credibility of the quack doctor who has convinced various quack celebrities than immunizations are a conspiracy with Autism at the end of the tunnel. Then again, all the networks hyped up Autism Awareness six months ago.
And so it goes.