In the past few weeks, both Brian Williams and Jessica Williams have made headlines for their relationship to “fake” news. The NBC news correspondent is rapidly falling from grace, and The Daily Show correspondent is rising to a new level of fame. For both of these so called news stories, I blame those of you who watch Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and even TMZ with the same salacious anticipation often reserved for the Real Housewives franchise. Because of you, we have descended into news coverage that is less fact than opinion, and created a world in which any schmuck can criticize a person in the public eye, for any reason.
We all know what is going on with BW. We can hardly avoid it. But JW’s recent story began when John Stewart has announced his impending retirement. Fans of the show had suggested that JW might be tapped as his replacement. JW quickly tweeted that she would not want the job and called herself “under-qualified”. As has become the way of our world, Esther Bloom of the Billfold.com decided that in the 140 characters of this Tweet, she had enough information to psychoanalyze Williams. Which she she did, badly and publicly. JW fired back, insisting that she knows herself better than the “journalist” could. In the resulting tweet war, JW has emerged a kind of folk hero (see video).
But given his body of work, BW might be an actual hero, at least in journalism circles. He has been the anchor NBC Nightly News since 2004. For more than eleven years he has managed thirty minutes of news coverage for five nights a week. That represents more than 80,000 minutes of news coverage and that number does not address his almost two decades of reporting prior to becoming anchor. That, in and of itself, is a near superhuman feat. What does it say that we are all so willing to tear down that legacy over the quality of his memory? Especially since we know that human memory is so terribly fallible, and that we are almost all guilty of conflating memories after age forty. I dare say that few alive could achieve what BW has— and make as few mistakes of memory.
What astounds me most is that is that if BW had responded to his criticism the way JW did to hers, he would have become more of a joke than he already is. JW is cheered, and rightly so, because she refuses to be measured by an unfair standard. BW’s scrutiny is equally unfair, but because he is the symbol of the old guard, he has no defense. NBC may also be sacrificing him for reasons of their own, using this excuse to leverage a change. As Nightly News editor, Williams would not likely report on this kind of story with as much speculation as his cable counterparts would, and I would bet that NBC wants him too. If that is true, the very integrity he is being accused of abandoning would be bringing him down. And BW is likely to be contractually obligated to remain silent on the inner workings at NBC. But why would one of his competitors point that out?
A career that would have once earned BW benefit of the doubt has been pushed to the back seat by a collective desire to be his judge and jury. Apparently, BW is allowed to be superhuman, as long as we catch no glimpse of his actual humanity. In this “scandal,” we have all watched with a horrific amusement as the pundits have compared BW to history's greatest newsmen— as if this would indict BW for not upholding a "standard" of news. Yet, none of the "journalists" making these comparisons seem to have asked themselves if they are reporting this story with the standard of those legendary journalists. Would Cronkite have ever speculated on the motives of another while a story was still unfolding? Would Morrow have used part of a story and present it as a whole analysis? Watch any of the so-called news about BW, and see that little is done to protect BW’s legacy. Newsmen of the past would have put that legacy on par with the allegations.
Since the trial of OJ Simpson, we have watched the news move further away from responsible characterization and delve deeper into speculation. In the years since, news media has lost its respect for its subjects. It has lost integrity in the desire to feed our more salacious appetites. With the BW controversy, news media has finally served up one of its own for dinner. As we have moved progressively and steadily toward a more pluralist society, we have conversely become increasingly rigid in the standard we hold for certain types of public figures. Paris Hilton can do whatever she wants, but our politicians and our newsmen — we hold them to standards that we would never want to be held to ourselves, and afford them none of the good will that we demand for ourselves. This double standard is at the heart of the degradation of our cultural identity. We are silent as opinion is presented as fact and we indulge those that might not vaccinate their kids out of an irrational fear.
The media once allowed great men and women to be human. They were selective about what the reported, which some believe allowed those great people to get their work done. What history has revealed about Lincoln, Jefferson, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts has proven that might be true. But most of us don’t want to learn history; we don't want to make these connections. Instead, we want to be spoon-fed reasons, even if those reasons feed our emotions more than our intellect. We would rather speculate than wait for real answers, and we allow that speculation to become our version of reality.
In the end, JW’s tweets may not be proof of a neurotic nature, but may instead prove that she is smart enough to know her own mind and what the job would actually require. Why was Bloom not expected to consider that before she published? I am sure the BW would have.