I was chatting with William Shakespeare the other day about Brian Williams when he shared what seemed to be a keen insight: “the fault dear Len is not in our stars but in ourselves.
Willy often drops these bewildering aphorisms, leaving me to ponder the hidden meaning. But just this morning, it hit me. Willy understood the real lessons learned from l’affaire Williams.
In his effete apology last month, Brian Williams claimed he conflated two separate helicopter missions in his reporting on the Iraq war. Subsequent investigations raised additional concerns with the veracity of his alleged encounters with Seal Team 6, Hurricane Katrina and, sacré bleu, even the Pope.
In my view, the ensuing tsunami of moral outrage has been misplaced. We should not blame Brian Williams, the star. The fault is mostly our own.
In granting Brian Williams star status, viewers and media pundits have conflated acting with journalism for years. We should never have revered Brian Williams as a serious journalist whose nightly reports could be taken as gospel.
Brian Williams is an actor. So is Bill O’Reilly (provocateur) and Jon Stewart (comedian). Each has a shtick that has served them and their TV ratings well. The reason why The Daily Show is so beloved and Williams is now scorned is that Jon Stewart never pretended to be a serious political commentator (although in many ways he was). Stewart is a talented comedian who delivers an irreverent perspective on the news, as often directed towards newscasters as newsmakers.
Brian Williams’ shtick was gravitas. His act portrayed him as a serious and inquisitive on-air journalist to be trusted to tell it like it is. But of course, Brian Williams’ on-air persona was just an act, not the work of a serious investigative journalist.
In playing his role, Williams felt obliged to create photo-ops at the scene of major stories – Katrina, Iraq, Vatican City – as if his very presence confirmed the importance of the event. After all, if Brian Williams told us he got dysentery after accidentally ingesting tainted water in New Orleans, we just knew Katrina was a serious hurricane, 1,833 fatalities notwithstanding.
In retrospect, it was ludicrous for viewers to expect Brian Williams to deliver remarkable scoops during his 36-hour whirlwind tours through New Orleans or Middle East war zones that were somehow missed by other serious journalists.
You can’t blame Williams for wanting to share sightings of dead bodies floating down flooded streets in New Orleans or hanging out with Seal Team 6 or chatting with the Pope. Nightly News viewers would expect no less from a man of such gravitas. We wanted to believe that Williams could bring gripping stories to our TV screens nightly.
So we put Williams in an impossible spot; to be something he wasn’t and couldn’t be. Sure Brian Williams is an egotist who ultimately drunk his own Kool-Aid. But we were enablers every step of the way. Our anger now is probably rooted in recognizing our own foolishness.
The Brian Williams show is over. Going forward, I hope his replacement neither aspires to be a superstar, nor conflates his or her flyby photo-ops with real reporting.
I think Sergeant Joe Friday got it right when I recently asked him what he hoped to get from NBC Nightly News going forward. “Just the facts, Len; just the facts.”
After 40 years in management consulting and venture capital, I joined the faculty of Columbia Business School, teaching courses in business strategy and corporate entrepreneurship
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