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.