Media

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.

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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:

NEXT: Sheldon Richman on America's James Bond Complex and the License to Kill

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  1. I occasionally tune into atraditional network nightly newscast. Then I tune away quickly: the tone is alarmist, the coverage is shallow, the viewpoint of the reporter painfully obvious.

    If you had never taken a break from watching it like I did, you wouldn’t realize how bad it is now.

    1. Williams has the compassionate head tilt down pat.

    2. Once upon a time I thought the mainstream media had a liberal bias. Then I took a break from television entirely for several years. Then I watched it again, and realized it wasn’t a liberal bias. Instead it was:

      1) Pro-government bias, because the government was the chief source of news and press releases.

      2) Urban coastal bias, with the Inside-the-Beltway variant being particularly common, because that’s where they live. People living west of I95 and east of I5 are a different species to them.

      3) Vapid dunderheads.

  2. Brian’s just pissed that there are so many more fact checkers now.

  3. It’s not the audience’s job to sit there and slurp up whatever is put in front of them.

    That will come as news to many of them.

    1. But they won’t get that news from Brian.

  4. To be fair, Brian has been busy lately with his second career:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YCeIgt7hMs

    1. Maybe watching his daughter get violated on cable TV has had an effect on him as well.

      1. Analingus is hardly a violation.

  5. It’s unclear what sort of penalty the veteran newsman will face, either from his employer or in the court of public opinion.

    I’m sure he’ll be fine. Dan Rather lost his job and was made fun of but was celebrated by his peers and has a decent gig.

  6. Credibility, integrity, and honesty should matter most, outside our family and friends, for politicians and people who we get information from. Instead, in our culture, that seems to matter the least. How screwed up are we?

    Personally, I think politicians and journalists should be held to far higher standards, not lesser ones. Get caught lying or doing anything dishonest once, then you’re done in that role, period. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

  7. All you JournoList creeps out there who can’t figure out why most of the country despises and mistrusts you (you all know who you are), guys like Brian Williams are the reason.

  8. “It’s unclear what sort of penalty the veteran newsman will face”…

    No, it isn’t. Lefty liars ‘mean well’, so their ‘misstatements’ are perfectly justified and fake scandal, besides!

    1. Heh heh…*veteran* newsman, because he saw fake combat. 🙂

      1. FAKE SCANDAL

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    1. Are you offer this to Brian Williams, in case he loses the network news-reader gig?

      1. Win!! 🙂

  10. and some folks wonder why people’s trust in the nation’s institutions has eroded. It’s not the institutions because institutions don’t think or act, it’s the people within them, often venal creatures elevated to a status that is wholly undeserved who come to think of themselves as beyond the fray, beyond the usual bounds.

    My professional life began as a tv news reporter. Credibility was all you had. Most of us were able to separate hard-hitting, even uncomfortable interviews about difficult stories from lying for the purpose for self-aggrandizement. Not sure I have seen as tortured an “apology” as what Williams offered.

    1. Maybe Bahgdad Brian can get a job with our once and future friends over there.

      But it is an interesting and now-obvious view — that news reporting has never before been subject to any kind of useful rebuttal, other than very small towns in Hollywood westerns. It certainly gives me a fresh appreciation of what thick skins the Reason employees have.

  11. One might “misremember” what grade they got in a high school literature class, or how many drinks they had last night. One does not “misremember” whether or not they were on an aircraft hit by enemy fire.

    They really think we’re stupid, don’t they?

    Problem is, for many of the viewing public, the assessment is right on target. It’ll be interesting to see whether those who call him out will be labled right wing nut jobs and brushed aside, or if this will actually be taken seriously in the end.

    1. I think it’s less that he thinks everyone is stupid than that’s the best excuse he could come up with, short of admitting that he just lied to make himself look good.

      “Misremembering” means it’s some benign error that can be attributed to honest human fallibility…what he did was lie to climb a ladder and make himself look good.

      1. Yes, I agree completely. I just hope “they” don’t think the public is buying the fact that it was a benign error.

  12. “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.”

    Boo fucking hoo.

    Democracy is awesome, until your personal goat is on the altar.

    1. Frankly, Vinny is more reliable than you and, for that matter, your network, Brian.

  13. Alec MacGillis, writing for Slate, recounts the times NBC folks unloaded on Hillary* and wonders if they’ll do the same for Brian.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/…..nchor.html

    As for Hillary “paying no penalty,” doesn’t losing the Democratic nomination count?

    *In a bonus poke, Chick Todd also makes fun of Sinbad, who I always thought was a lot funnier than Chuck Todd.

  14. Brian Williams sure does hate Brooklyn.

  15. Yes, Secretary of State, multi-millionaire, and odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination Clinton paid a heavy, heavy price for her lies. But that is to be expected because the she is main target-victim-martyr of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

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  17. It wouldn’t be so terrible if he was embellishing a tale for friends and family, but to tell it on the air over and over again… to believe those soldiers didn’t see him on the air telling a lie or more to the point, not caring that they saw him on the air telling a lie. We’re so accustomed to politicians, the entertainment biz, and media fibbing (stretching the truth) that we don’t really react to it anymore. It’s a weekly gotcha for politicians on cable networks and they seem to have have endless resources. No Zone no more.

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