Friday, February 6, 2015

Life of Brian

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
—Albert Einstein

A lot of people are now asking, can Brian Williams be trusted to deliver our news?

Some people are asking that rhetorically. Those people are mainly in the media business. People who are asking the question for real are probably mostly pretty old. Younger people are probably asking, who is Brian Williams? Or maybe they are asking, why does anyone watch Brian Williams or any of those TV network evening anchors?

Williams’s story is pretty stunning. I do not mean that it is stunning that his original (apparently accurate) account of a helicopter coming under RPG fire in Iraq in 2003 morphed into a version in which he himself was on the helicopter. I have friends whose stories, the more they tell them, “improve” like that all the time. I have probably done it myself. Williams’s story seems to have improved when he was asked about it on the air by David Letterman, and that’s the version that got repeated until he retold it in front of the wrong people (soldiers who were actually there) last week at a public tribute at a hockey match.

What is interesting is how the sweetened story was repeated for years without being questioned or corrected by any of Williams’s colleagues, editors, fact checkers or any other members of the team that is supposedly in the business of delivering accurate information. What’s illuminating is the way his “apology” was couched in the kind of evasive language and deflection that would have done any political spin doctor proud. No wonder it is so easy for the Jay Carneys of the world to transition so effortlessly from being a Time correspondent to a White House flack to a CNN pundit.

The Williams incident says tons about the TV news business. These days information is free and freely available. To the extent that old-style news readers like Williams add value, what they provide is their brand. There is a macho value system that requires anchors to head into the story they are covering. And, in war situations particularly, the story often becomes about them. If a reporter is endangered or injured during war, it inevitably gets more attention on the news shows than if it had happened to any individual soldier.

The reality is that, if you are relying mainly on the evening news broadcast for your information, you are not getting very much. If you subtract commercial breaks, that leaves about 22 minutes—at least half of which, in my experience anyway, is soft feature material. And the few minutes that you do get of hard news is largely superficial and, frankly, skewed.

So should Williams be fired?

A decade or two ago he probably would have been. (That’s assuming that his exaggeration would even have become widely known when there were not so many social media and internet news sources to spread and highlight it.) Back then a network news division’s credibility was its bread and butter. These days that seems less important. Viewers seem more interested in having their own pre-existing views affirmed than in learning something new.

Personally, I think news consumers are actually better off if Williams stays. Then it is unambiguously clear to everybody what packaged broadcast news really is. It’s all about the quality of the story, not the quality of the information. You pick your anchor based on his or her personality—and maybe his or her looks—so that you feel comfortable while hearing about the latest catastrophe or listening to digests of the latest talking points from various authorities.

If Williams were fired and replaced by someone else, it would just confuse things. Viewers might start getting the idea that the nightly news actually matters.

But more and more viewers are already figuring out that there are better ways to get informed, which explains why the audience for network news keeps shrinking. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean that those who abandon TV news are becoming better informed. For all we know, many of them are being drawn to less trustworthy sources of information. The optimistic view, though, is that many of them are being drawn to more and varied sources of information.

After all, the main down side of traditional network news was never that it was a particularly bad source of information. Its main down side has always been that it is only one source of information.

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