Earlier this month, I asked the question, Should we really be glad to see Brian Williams go? In response I certainly got an earful of reasons why I “just don’t get it” along with some admittedly cogent arguments about the underlying message of Williams’ downfall. My point at the time, however, was not so much a question of whether Williams was guilty of liberal bias on top of his “colorful” war stories. While perhaps poorly phrased, I was trying to draw a distinction between puffing yourself up and falsely reporting the events of the day.
This week our old friend S.E. Cupp took to the pages of the Daily News and did what was probably a much better job of conveying what had been bothering me about this whole episode. She starts off by listing some personal and professional reasons why she’s less inclined to join the dog pile, but then gets around to defining the crime in question.
It’s muddled, after all. Unlike, say, Stephen Glass, the infamous fabulist at The New Republic who invented entire events and sources that never existed, or Jayson Blair, who cobbled stories together for the New York Times by plagiarizing details off of other writers, Williams’ sin seems to be not invention or theft but merely self-aggrandizement…
While most of these stories are now either disputed or at least highly questionable, it’s worth pointing out that Williams’ act of injecting himself into history during fawning interviews by awestruck talk-show hosts doesn’t actually change history.
She then gets down to the real question… was his reporting inaccurate or falsified?
It’s also important that, as far as we know, Williams’ actual reporting – what he said on television as a journalist while covering a story and not what he said to interviewers – has not come into question. As Tom Bettag, a producer who worked with Williams at NBC said, “his insistence on fact-checking approached being a pain in the butt.”
I’m not saying that his entertainment TV appearances don’t matter or that the whole thing should be forgotten. Clearly, as a news desk jockey, the public has a right to hold him to a higher standard and his behavior and speech no matter where he goes. Anything which casts his credibility into doubt in other areas will wash over to affect the confidence the viewers have in him when he’s doing his job. All of this is true.
But, as S.E. stated rather well, we should not confuse invention or theft with mere self-aggrandizement. There is probably a case to be made that network news anchors shouldn’t be doing Letterman, Fallon or The Daily Show in the first place. For someone with such a serious job, doing parody sketches with rap stars and yucking it up with Jon Stewart are undoubtedly not the sort of mental images you want to leave with the average news consumer. And yet a part of me finds it hard to begrudge the guy a little fun in his off time, and we all like to feed our ego to a certain degree, no?
Cupp’s conclusion asks the question of the day, wondering what’s next for Williams. I don’t think he can or should be heading back to the anchor chair, personally. For better or worse, he has become the story rather than reporting on it, and that in itself is a cardinal sin for a real news anchor. It’s not a story that’s likely to fade any time soon. But S.E. suggesting that maybe he should be a late night show host himself probably doesn’t work either. All of this brouhaha revolved around the ego of Brian Williams, and being reduced to doing the sort of satire which always used to target him for a living would likely be too much of a cross to bear.
Instead, Williams could probably write a couple of books, for which he would doubtless earn considerable advances. If he’s really feeling a fit of pique, I’m sure he has plenty of bits of dirty laundry on others in the industry he could air to have a bit of revenge in addition to financing his retirement. He could probably earn some decent speaking fees, too.
If nothing else, at least it would keep him busy. And he’d be free to do the late night shows as much as he likes.