Was NBC News' Brian Williams Avoiding "Divisive" Stories or Anti-Obama Ones?


New York magazine

Writing in New York, Gabriel Sherman has penned a great piece about how the entire news division at NBC has been circling the drain for a long time. There is most recently and publicly the suspension of news achor Brian Williams for making shit up about his brushes with death in far-flung places such as Iraq and post-Katrina New Orleans, but there's also the ratings-and-relevancy slides of other major shows such as Today and Meet The Press.

It's a great behind-the-scenes look at how the mainstream TV news gets made and is only slightly less filled with bone, gristle, and burnt feathers than those PETA videos about how chicken McNuggets end up on your plate. The not-secret-at-all fact is that broadcast news ratings have been declining for ever and Sherman documents at least part of the reason when he cites critics of story selection by Williams, who was also the network's "managing editor" and thus exerted huge influence over both his show and Peacock Network coverage more broadly:

Multiple sources told me that former NBC investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers battled with Williams over stories. In February 2013, Isikoff failed to interest Williams in a piece about a confidential Justice Department memo that justified killing American citizens with drones. He instead broke the story on Rachel Maddow. That October, Myers couldn't get Williams to air a segment about how the White House knew as far back as 2010 that some people would lose their insurance policies under Obama­care. Frustrated, Myers posted the article on NBC's website, where it immediately went viral. Williams relented and ran it the next night. "He didn't want to put stories on the air that would be divisive," a senior NBC journalist told me. According to a source, Myers wrote a series of scathing memos to then–NBC senior vice-president Antoine Sanfuentes documenting how Williams suppressed her stories. ­Myers and Isikoff eventually left the network (and both declined to comment).


Whole piece.

Divisive is one term for either of those stories. Critical of President Obama and state power more broadly is another. I think it's actually the latter that is more important and helps to explain part of the evacuation of broadcast news by viewers.

The stories that Williams passed on—one about secret rules justifying killing Americans and one about fallout from Obamacare—weren't simply divisive, they also demonstrate the abuse of state power and its limits to reshape the world in its image.

While passing on them may well reflect a pro-Obama bias on Williams' part, I think they even more importantly represent a pro-establishment point of view. Williams is (or was) arguably the last of the mainstream guys, not overtly political but wanting to be everybody's pal (Sherman's article notes Williams' dream of getting a late-night TV show). This was a guy with no edge, no strong character, no obvious oddness. His problem was that he was born too late. Viewers want the news, it turns out, even from mainstream broadcasts. We may not want hard and obvious ideology from the broadcast networks (that we get from MSNBC and Fox News), but if you're initially passing on stories like these, you're living in happy place that nobody inhabits anymore.

You're not curating the news, baby, you're cozying up to power. Period. And nobody's into that anymore.

Unlike cable shows, which we expect to be ideological, viewers do want some semblance of objectivity from NBC, CBS, and ABC. But we also don't want bullshit, either. We want hard-hitting, tough-but-fair evaluations of what's going on in the world. Check out that chart of press coverage of recent presidents in their first years. Obama started off with the greatest honeymoon possible but even his positives slid. George W. Bush's rose, especially after 9/11. Note though that with the exception of Bush, all ended lower than they started, which is a sign that broadcast news was at least doing some of its watchdog act.

As someone with loyalty to neither major party, I care less about partisanship in news coverage than whether journalists are bringing their best critical analysis to far more important issues than what's good for the Democrats or the Republicans while in office. These issues include the relationship of the state to the individual and whether policies are addressing real issues in the first place and what their effects will likely be.

Two decades ago, my views might have been somewhat outside the mainstream. But we are living in the "Libertarian Moment," aren't we, friends? A big part of that is a general rise in skepticism toward concentrated power, especially government and state power. That's even more mainstream than accepting gay marriage or pot legalization or that markets are generally better than command economies.

Williams showed horrible news sense but so do other broadcast channels, too. But not just with Obama. In the wake of 9/11 and certainly in the run-up to Iraq in 2003 (and for a long while after), I don't recall the networks being skpetical of the administration's plans. Indeed, folks such as Williams seemed positively giddy over "embedding" with troops and getting to report while wearing field jackets and even Army helmets.

Broadcast news won't stop the bleeding until they get in touch with what used to be called "the reality-based community" that most Americans inhabit. And given the world in which people who make network news tend to live—pampered, elite, coastal, clubby, etc.—don't expect much to change anytime ever.