Commentary Magazine


Williams and the Myth of the Evening News

In our 24/7 news environment it is sometimes hard to remember the central role that the national evening news broadcasts played in American life prior to the cable revolution. But though those programs still exist and have a considerable audience, their importance is greatly diminished. That’s why the controversy over NBC News’ Brian Williams’s lies about his experience during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is significant, though not quite as earthshaking as it once might have been. But while the toppling of yet another mainstream media giant is still a big deal, it also points out the fallacy inherent in the way most Americans once regarded the institution of the evening news. Far from being the source of objectivity and integrity, these shows were, and are, the product of news organizations that are not only flawed but also saturated with liberal bias. It is that lack of intellectual integrity and bias that led to the success of the alternatives to these programs in places like Fox News and talk radio. The diminished audience for programs like the one Williams hosts (at least for now) is rooted in the lack of faith in the integrity of the mainstream media that his prevarications have once more illustrated.

The clamor about Williams’s astonishing lies about what happened during his time in Iraq is amplified by the notion that he is not just another TV talking head but the face of NBC News. To be the leading personality of a broadcast network’s news division is not a small thing even in an era where there are hundreds of alternatives for viewers choose at 6:30 p.m. EST when the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams airs on weekdays. But though he has built a reputation and a following with a sonorous voice, sense of humor, and a low-key everyman style of reading the news, Williams is not quite the big deal that a person in his position would once have been considered.

For decades, the nation was largely dependent on the 30-minute programs shown by the three major networks for national and international news. Those who read the headlines on these programs—Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, and Howard K. Smith, just to mention those with the longest tenure—were not just TV stars. They were the gods of the news business and national icons rather than mere celebrities as some of today’s more prominent news readers might be considered.

But the point here is that Williams’ program and the competition on CBS and ABC ceased being the central focus of the nation’s attention or of the chattering classes a long time ago. And the reason for that is not entirely unrelated to the controversy about the NBC personality.

Williams was forced this week to make an on-air apology for repeatedly falsifying the story of his Iraq experience. Though at the time of the incident, he broadcast a report that said he was in a helicopter following an aircraft that was hit by enemy fire, in the years since then he has embellished the story to the extent that now the rocket-propelled grenade hit his copter. Shakespeare’s Henry V pointed out in his “St. Crispin’s Day” speech that old soldiers have sometimes been known to speak of their exploits “with advantages” as the years pass and when wine is flowing. But Williams is a journalist who is supposed to stick to the facts and avoid fiction. That Williams once publicly berated bloggers as being unreliable when compared to media veterans like him only makes him more vulnerable.

What’s more, as the New York Times pointed out today, he may have dug himself an even deeper hole by putting his false statements down to “the fog of war,” a very real concept that has nothing to do with what happened to Williams. Indeed that “fog” may be even greater than we might think since some are accusing him of making up the part about his helicopter following the one that was hit.

This is all very embarrassing for NBC and a star that it pays more than $10 million a year to look at the camera and sound credible. But if NBC News and CBS and ABC too have audiences that are a fraction of what they once were, it is in no small measure due to the fact that many Americans long ago gave up believing in the network’s integrity.

The point about Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley’s hold on the American imagination is not just that they looked and sounded the part of the nation’s town crier and conscience. It was that they were thought to be objective and fair in their reporting. This was always something of a myth, but the belief in the mainstream media’s conceit about its own objectivity is one that many liberals still cling to. But the huge audience that tunes in to Fox News every day is testament to the fact that many of us long since recognized that the three networks were feeding us news reported and told from a liberal frame of reference. The news icons weren’t just outdated. They were revealed to have feet of clay.

Fox isn’t perfect but it provides a look at the news from a different perspective than that of the leftist elites. That’s also why its left-wing competition at MSNBC is such a disaster. The fact that MSNBC’s ratings are now at a 10-year low is not surprising. Liberals like to watch news with a liberal bias. But MSNBC’s open bias (which is far greater than that of Fox’s tilt to the right) isn’t what they want. They prefer their liberal bias presented with a false veneer of objectivity rather than the overt leftism of the failing network.

Whether Williams can survive the furor over his lies is an open question. But his network and the rest of the mainstream media were exposed before we learned about his fibs. Like Dan Rather’s infamous false reports about George W. Bush’s National Guard service, Williams’s tall tale is just one more example of why the pretense of Olympian objectivity of the evening news readers was always bunk. The myth of the evening news was exploded a long time ago. Set beside that truth, the fate of one TV personality is very small change indeed.

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3 Responses to “Williams and the Myth of the Evening News”


    The New York Times devotes a front page story to the fact that a television news reader lied about being in a helicopter hit by enemy fire while reporting from Iraq. Although that story is certainly newsworthy, compare its treatment by the Times to the paper’s almost total blackout of facts that emerged during the 2004 presidential campaign strongly indicating that Senator John Kerry had fabricated, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, a dramatic and emotional account of coming under fire on Christmas Eve 1968 during a secret mission by his swift boat in Cambodian waters. Unlike Mr. Williams’ self-inflating prevarication, which had no public policy implications or other significant import, Senator Kerry’s story was made up for a political purpose — namely, to denounce covert aid to the Nicaraguan contras. A lie told by a presidential candidate in a debate about a controversial public issue would seem to be a much bigger story than a newsman’s retelling “with advantages” the dangers he passed while reporting from the front lines of a war. Yet even after Senator Kerry’s staff was forced to acknowledge that his swift boat had never entered Cambodian waters, the Times’ only mention of Kerry’s Christmas in Cambodia came near the end of a lengthy hit piece clearly intended to discredit the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which had raised a number of questions about Kerry’s Vietnam service. The contrast in the newspaper’s handling of these two stories is about as stark an example of bias in news reporting as one is likely to find.


    This whole business about Williams wouldn’t be of any importance if it weren’t for the fact that today we live in a celebrity culture. Look around us who is famous. People who are famous just for being famous. To think that people like Williams are important and his transgressions really matter is enough to make one sign on to Huckabee and Santorum with a little Sarah Palin thrown in.


    The beauty in this event is that fabrications and outright lies that the Right has noted and forcefully corrected for years now is no longer deniable among the foaming Left. Before Fox News, liberal network news had the field all to themselves, and any corrections or new facts to derail their takes was buried on page 56 in the newspapers, if at all. The public had nothing more than the teleprompter readers from whom to not only receive news but from whom to fashion their opinions on the news.

    Once Fox News countered the alphabet-titled network hawkers of slant, the vast middle awakened to an era where credibility resided on The Right. Over the 29 years of Fox’s Cable Channel, the bleeding of the networks has become more than a whisper. It has become a full flow of fleeing viewers. Media analysts have dissected this ongoing occurrence infinitum, but the average Joe, smelling the excrement, finally had a place to turn for a view of events and the world that coincided with his/her own. Ain’t America great!

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