The departure, temporary so far, of Brian Williams has provided a measure of relief to NBC’s beleaguered news division. With Lester Holt getting good ratings and other stories erupting (notably Hillary Clinton’s scandals at State and the Clinton Foundation), people have paid less attention to efforts to scour Williams’ records for more evidence of fabulism and exaggeration. It’s been almost a month since the last big reveal, and NBC News has been very quiet about its own probe into Williams’ public statements.
That doesn’t mean that NBC has righted the ship in its news division, though. New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman offers a lengthy look at the dysfunction that has gripped NBC News for years and impacted every one of its shows. However, buried dozens of paragraphs deep into the story, Sherman alleges from multiple stories that Williams buried two news stories that later rocked the Obama administration (via Justin Green):
The Nightly News crisis exposed deep-rooted anger among many NBC journalists, who felt frustrated that Williams had been allowed to gain so much power. In recent years, the anchor had churned through executive producers who challenged him.
Others complained about Williams’s unwillingness to go after hard-hitting stories. 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).
Williams didn’t want to be “divisive”? Let’s put it another way — two other ways, actually, in which people in the industry define their mission. Aren’t journalists supposed to speak truth to power, and to afflict the comfortable while comforting the afflicted? That’s how media outlets commonly define the mission of journalism. In what ways do Barack Obama not qualify as power and “the comfortable”?
Even at the core of news reporting, the audience reaction should not enter into the equation. Isn’t it the purpose of news organizations to report the news and let everyone else decide what is “divisive”? Reporting the news means giving viewers the facts in order to have a more informed citizenry. This kind of thinking — if sincere, which seems doubtful — represents the worst kind of condescension and patronization. Williams didn’t trust his audience long before his audience found reason to lose their trust in him. Even Rachel Maddow trusted her own highly partisan audience more than Williams trusted his.
Sherman’s report here echoes the most pervasive and insidious kind of media bias, as described by Bernard Goldberg in his seminal book Bias. Most problems of media bias come less from the reporting and more from editorial control of the content. What we call “media bias” is largely “editorial bias” — choosing which news stories to cover, and which to bury. The impact of that reaches into the reporting, not just because of hiring practices but by the incentive structures that get built up with editorial bias.
New York Magazine may have inadvertently provided an example of this here, too. Why did this get buried near the bottom of a long analysis? Has anyone thought to ask Lisa Myers of other stories she had that Williams buried, and whether they had any similarities with the two listed — especially in regard to whether they were critical of the Obama administration? Sharyl Attkisson found herself on the outs at CBS in a very similar scenario.
Seems like there’s a story there, for those who aren’t worried about divisiveness or afflicting the comfortable.