Brian Williams vs. New Media (AKA "a Guy Named Vinny in an Efficiency Apartment")

Faking a story about being attacked in a war zone is awful, but it's not the newsman's biggest mistake.


As noted last night, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (who also serves as managing editor for the network) has copped to "misremembering" his experiences under fire in Iraq during 2003.

Over the years, Williams told a story about flying in a U.S. military helicopter that had been forced to land due to enemy fire.

That story isn't true, as Williams admitted after several soldiers involved in the incident objected. To make matters worse, Williams clearly embroidered the story over the years and trotted it out while paying respects to actual soldiers.

It's unclear what sort of penalty the veteran newsman will face, either from his employer or in the court of public opinion. As Jesse Walker wrote, Hillary Clinton has to date paid no apparent price for "misremembering" an incident in which she claimed to be under sniper fire.

But let me suggest this sort of awful fabrication is not the most significant of Williams' shortcomings or lack of journalistic clarity. In 2007, Williams gave a lecture at New York University in which he lambasted alternative and new media sources in the most scurrilous terms possible, focusing especially on their supposed lack of credentials and verifiability. During a conversation about careers in journalism, he told students:

"You're going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe," said Williams. "All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I'm up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn't left the efficiency apartment in two years."

He added that it's often difficult to judge the credibility of a blogger. "On the Internet, no one knows if you've been to Ramadi or you've just been to Brooklyn and have an opinion about Ramadi," said Williams….

"If we're all watching cats flushing toilets, what aren't we reading? What great writer are we missing? What great story are we ignoring? This is societal, it's cultural, I can't change it….Like everybody else, I can burn an hour on YouTube or Perez Hilton without breaking a sweat. And what have I just not paid attention to that 10 years ago I would've just consumed?"

To his credit, Williams was not perfectly antagonistic to new media. "He or she who doesn't adapt dies," he said.

It is, of course, fun to read such quotes in the wake of Williams' recent confession. But beyond the gotcha element, there's a larger and more important point here. Despite a brief uptick in ratings in the past year or two, there's no question that legacy media, especially television news and traditional newspapers, are taking a beating in terms of ratings, readership, confidence, and trust.  

The first instinct of those most directly challenged by new media is to lash out not simply at the creators but the audience for producing and consuming such fare. That's abundantly clear in Williams' comments at NYU. It was widely evident in the various smug, crybaby eulogies for The New Republic, whose defenders tended to talk about the magazine like Don McLean sang about Vincent van Gogh: "This world was never meant for one as beautiful for you."

The fact is that what counts as news changes over time. What stories "matter" or are important to people isn't something to be discovered like a new continent but something to be invented and reinvented constantly. There's little reason to think that Americans now are obsessed with watching cats flushing toilets, or whatever parade of horribles Brian Williams contends we are. It's that what he and most solons in the broadcast and cable news biz think is important just isn't to most people. It's journalists' job to figure out how to convey their vision of the world in a way that audiences find compelling. It's not the audience's job to sit there and slurp up whatever is put in front of them. And thanks to the Internet and other technologies that lower barriers to entry, audiences will be smaller because we all have more choices of what to consume. That's a good thing, isn't it?

I probably don't agree with Glenn Greenwald even half of the time on many issues, yet I think he is essentially correct when he writes of "the petulant entitlement syndrome of journalists."

Prior to the advent of blogs, establishment journalists were largely immunized even from hearing criticisms. If a life-tenured New York Times columnist wrote something stupid or vapid, or a Sunday TV news host conducted a sycophantic interview with a government official, there was no real mechanism for the average non-journalist citizen to voice critiques. At best, aggrieved readers could write a Letter to the Editor, which few journalists cared about. Establishment journalists spoke only to one another, and careerist concerns combined with an incestuous chumminess ensured that the most influential among them heard little beyond flowery praise.

Blogs, and online political activism generally, changed all of that. Though they tried – hard – these journalists simply could not ignore the endless stream of criticisms directed at them. Everywhere they turned – their email inboxes, the comment sections to their columns, Q-and-A sessions at their public appearances, Google searches of their names, email campaigns to their editors – they were confronted for the first time with aggressive critiques, with evidence that not everyone adored them and some even held them in contempt.

That's all over now, and it's a better media world for the change. Even if it means that formerly untouchable figures can now be publicly lampooned (check out Twitter's #brianwilliamsmisrmembers for some examples).

Watch Reason's interview with Greenwald, in which he talks about working with Edward Snowden and his plans to poke, prod, and piss off the powerful: