The Triviality of Network Newspeople

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Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    My facebook is full of people complaining that Brian Williams is the first guy to get punished for lying about Iraq.

    Which makes me tired.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      My Facebook is full of people upset about Jon Stewart stepping down. I haven’t seen anyone comment on Williams. I wonder what that says…Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      Insofar as I care about Williams (which is about, oh, the length of this post) I find the stuff he said about Katrina about a million times more egregious than the Iraq thing.

      As best I can tell, in Iraq he was actually in a helicopter and other helicopters near him got shot at and shot down or something. So there was “helicopter” and “combat” in reasonable proximity to him, and I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt that (1) such a story grows in telling and as time passes (2) anyone scared witless is likely to remember things even LESS clearly than the already ridiculously fallible human memory.

      With Katrina, he apparently just made stuff up. Like..right there, within hours of the purported events. No gangs assaulted his hotel, for instance. Suspiciously ethnic relatives of staff apparently did at the permission of management…..

      Dead bodies did not float past his dry hotel.

      But it certainly played into the “wild looters” and “rapists in the Supredome” and other trash being reported as true. Trash that played to destructive and well-worn racial stereotypes. “Tons of people homeless, some dead, thousands living in cramped squalor in a makeshift shelter at the Superdome” just doesn’t sell eyeballs like “black thugs run riot, revert to animal roots like you always suspected”.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to morat20
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        says:

        Did you read the one guy debunking Williams’ claim to have gotten dysentery from accidentally ingesting Katrina floodwaters (despite there having been no reported outbreaks of dysentery after Katrina)?

        He was like, “Well, all I can tell you is my dogs drank plenty of that floodwater, and they were just fine.”Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Dogs eat and drink anything.

        Although I did have once have a dog once that got giardia. That was one sick, miserable dog.

        And by “have” I meant “the person spending a few weeks living with us during her divorce” had a dog that had giardia. A 120 pound dog.

        I have never seen such a horrible, horrible, mess. I felt sorry for the dog, but one look at the state of my kitchen (where the poor thing’s illness…manifested, for the first time) made me consider selling the house, because I wasn’t sure I could ever enter the kitchen again. I just didn’t feel there was enough bleach in the entire world.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to morat20
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        says:

        morat20,
        oh, so true. Dogs swim in combined sewage overflows around here all the time. I feel like shaking people, and saying “you have kids. don’t let your dog do that.”Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        @morat20

        Yeah, if you consider “an hour behind the helicopter” that was attacked “close proximity” and that it had already landed after being damaged “close proximity” and “in the ball park”. I don’t cut him any slack at all on that. Nor do I cut him slack on Katrina. He lied. This wasn’t “embellishment”.

        They guy’s got a shelf of awards (i assume) and has done all kinds of impressive things. He didn’t need to lie about this. And he didn’t get punished enough.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Damon,

        Actually, that falls under (1). His original story in 2003 was “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,”.

        His book (later in 2003) was “one of the chopper crews ahead of us”. it wasn’t until two or three years later his story shifted to witnessing it.

        The pilot of the actual helicopter he was in was claiming it was hit by small arms fire (and then later sorta recanted, but said only “he [the pilot] may have forgotten or misremembered something” which goes back to the ridiculous fallibility of human memory.

        *shrug*. Boiling it down, I have more of a problem with Katrina because at least in Iraq there WAS a war going on, helicopters WERE being shot at and the stuff he reported at least happened to someone in the vicinity — and his tales didn’t get really tall until years and years later. His early reporting was, at least, somewhat factual and open.

        With Katrina, he was playing to ugly racial stereotypes live — without any basis at ALL for his claims.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Re: Brian Williams and what helicopter it was that got shot at. I’ve opined at length on these pages about the plasticity of memory. That seems to me to be what happened to Brian Williams.

        When discussing Williams over lunch with colleagues the other day, I was reminded of a local politician who said something incredibly stupid and bigoted at an event, then drew protests and community criticism, and responded to the protests by insisting in an interview with the local paper that she’d never said the thing that she had, in fact said. The reporter, who had been present at the original remark, didn’t have the recording with her, and the politician offered to review the video at a public event later that evening. Well, they obliged. She’d thoroughly convinced herself, over the course of less than a week that she was an innocent victim of a media smear. Seeing the audio-visual evidence that she had in fact actually said this incredibly stupid and bigoted thing that she’d spent the previous week denying she’d said proved devastating to her ego. She gave some sort of a meek apology on the spot, fled the cameras, nearly immediately resigned her elected political position, and withdrew from public life completely.

        And I’m also reminded of a thing I just read — not only is it amazingly easy to alter your own memories, it’s amazingly easy to alter someone else’s, up to the point that people will remember committing, and actually confess to, crimes that they never actually committed after three 40-minute sessions with interviewers.

        Some commenters here have called this sort of thing “magical mind control” but there’s nothing magical about it. It’s really more akin to exploits in the game code that is our neurological programming. And it’s likely that it’s happened to all of us, whether spurred on by someone else talking about something repeatedly, something we’ve been repeatedly exposed to in the media, or something that we’ve told ourselves a lot. Brian Williams reprogrammed his own memory, like so many other people have before him. It happens in his case that this had some consequences.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Burt,

        That’s what happens when you have a fundamental design flaw in your memory encoding. As best I understand it, recalling a memory is to read it out of your brain, think about it, then write the memory back.

        The act of recalling an incident fundamentally alters it. You don’t have “This thing happened, it’s chiseled into stone and can never be changed”. Recalling it changes it.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Yeah, but he ain’t recalling the event. He made it up. I fail to see how, on the initial recall, he confused being in a helicopter taking an rpg and crashing to being in the chopper an hour behind said rpg attacked chopper.

        I think he liked originally and retold the lie enough to make that the new memory. Either way, he lied….it’s all down hill after that.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Damon,

        I quoted his initial statements (in 2003) and in his book, which don’t actually claim anything controversial. (“He was in a helicopter, and other helicopters ahead of them were taking fire”).

        You can literally chart his statements over the next 11 years and watch them slowly morph. It’s fascinating, as you watch the story slowly change. It starts slow, moving to ‘the Chinook ahead of us’ to ‘he saw it happen’ to ‘his helicopter was attacked too’ to him finally having RPG’s shot at his copter.

        It’s also, as Burt noted, exactly what happens with memories. People can literally rewrite their memory of events hours old into something unrecognizable. It’s a fascinating trait of humans — yourself included.

        I think the biggest boon and harshest curse of the internet is that we are losing that luxury. Our pasts, harsh and unmodified by our unavoidable human impulses, follow us always. More and more of your memories are verifiable — and the massive fallibility of our memories are exposed.

        It strips away everything, including the comforting self-delusions that let us get through the day — conversations and confrontations we mentally rewrite to feel better about, our foolish mistakes mitigated…Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Morat and Burt are right, of course. Every act of recall and processing changes the representation of a memory. What’s more, individual recalls are incomplete, so we fill in details as we think or talk about a memory.

        I think I’ve talked about how my uncle and I have spent years trying to out tall-tale each other. All of my tall-tales, most of which I reuse each time, are based on real events, but I’ve told the stories so many times that I’m no longer sure which parts are real and which are the additions made in various tellings.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        @morat20

        Ah, I didn’t realize this. I thought the story had stayed consistent from day one…maybe an embellishment here or there, but not real change. Mi bad.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        @chris

        But why does it seem that these stories only evolve in one direction… towards being taller, most outlandish, more beneficial to the teller?

        Or is that confirmation bias? Do we not notice the stories that fade over time?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        Yeah, they don’t, necessarily. I mean, Williams is likely altering stories to make himself look bigger or more important or whatever. I altered the stores I’m referring to to make the stories more outrageous, because that’s the game. Most of the time, however, memories are altered in entirely mundane ways.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        But why does it seem that these stories only evolve in one direction… towards being taller, most outlandish, more beneficial to the teller?
        Probably because we’re human. Our worlds revolve around ourselves — not in a narcissistic way, but simply the fact that the one constant in anyone’s world view is themselves. Other people come and go, but you’re always there.

        There’s also the very nature of story telling — “this is what happened to a friend” is not nearly as interesting as “this is what happened to me”. Take your average comic — some of the ‘true stories’ they tell are from life (if suitably embellished to make them funnier), others are probably stories told by friends or ones they’ve just made up.

        But saying “Here’s what happened to me” makes audiences listen in a way that “I saw this guy once, and thought hey wouldn’t it be funny if X happened, and then I did Y, and then BAM…Z”.

        That’s why I can forgive Williams more easily for Iraq — the story changed over a decade, but initially was fairly sensible. The Katrina thing was just racist nonsense that fed into some already really ugly BS. People literally got shot based on those stories (the ones in general, not Williams in specific), for doing nothing other than trying to leave a flooded out town for drier ground.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20
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        says:

        Sorry about the italics. Oops Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to morat20
        Ignored
        says:

        morat20,
        ditto.
        SomethingPositive doesn’t pretend that everything that’s out there is Randy’s true to life stories. I’m pretty sure most “semi-fictional” comics are amalgamations of real people. (both Kiki and Bun-bun were partially based on the same person).Report

  2. Avatar Glyph
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    says:

    It’s a combination of things, but mostly IMO the proliferation of media outlets. There will never again be any single person with the stature of a Murrow or Cronkite bestriding the world like a colossus, because there are no longer only three (!) networks, and so on, and so forth.

    Which is probably good, since it’s not as earth-shattering now to find out that any of these colossi have feet of clay.

    What’s weird though (or maybe not, in a “relative” way) is how the President seemingly has loomed ever-larger in the public imagination over that same time frame. I guess there’s still only one of him/her, and even taking into account the leaders of other nations, it’s still a small club.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph
      Ignored
      says:

      Plus, the President is on the other side of the media proliferation equation: there used to be 3 people on TV 30 minutes a day, maybe 5-10 of which might they might spend talking about the president; now there are dozens on TV, 24 hours a day, collectively, of which they might spend hours talking about the president.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw
    Ignored
    says:

    My facebook feed is more filled with stuff about John Stewart than Brian Wilson. Why would anyone be talking about Pet Sounds?

    I kid, I kid.

    I think it is a combination of age (network news is largely dead and largely watched by a much older audience than we are) and a combination of media expansion. People in my age cohort who follow the news get it from some old-school newspapers like the Times and the Guardian, small magazines/on-line places, maybe MSNBC, the BBC, and places like the Daily Show/Colbert Report/John Oliver. I think our generation is largely suspicious of the Big Three and this goes all across the political spectrum.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko
    Ignored
    says:

    Questions for the hive mind:

    1. How much have movies and TV shows deflated the sort of credibility and gravitas once attributed to these figures? We’ve all seen lots of popular fiction where journalists are portrayed as dishonest, craven, unethical, corrupt, and/or dim — and while there’s also some fictional portrayal of journalists as having integrity and being worthy of public trust, this seems to be in the minority.

    2. What about the fact that television and the internet have made it easier to see and trace a journalist’s career arc? Walter Cronkite was widely considered a trusted authority figure because of his wartime correspondence, but we forget that he hawked cigarettes and interviewed puppets for a time in his career, too. But it’s easier somehow to think of someone like Katie Couric as a mere “reader” and recall years spent doing lightweight stuff like puff pieces on Olympic athelete and interviewing celebrity chefs on the Today show, and forget that she singlehandedly eviscerated Sarah Palin’s credibility as a politician who could be trusted to be heartbeat away from the Presidency, as only the most prominent of many other uncomfortable truths she’s revealed in interviews with a variety of prominent political figures.

    3. What about the fact that “free agency” is now part of a journalist’s career? Cronkite’s entire career was with CBS. Tom Brokaw’s entire broadcast journalism career was and still is with NBC. But the expectation now is that journalists are going to complete their contracts and then get the best-paying gigs they can with the highest bidder, so it might be FOX today, ABC tomorrow, and Al-Jazeera America the day after that.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      1. We definitely live in a more skeptical era all-around. I can’t think of an institution that doesn’t get a sneering response, or more of a sneering response than it used to. People at the Jennings level used to get the benefit of the doubt. A few of them proved that they didn’t deserve it. Now nobody gets the benefit of the doubt.

      How do we get back there? I don’t think we should; ideally, we’d get to the point where reputation reflects character. And I don’t think we do get back there easily. There was an article on Powerline recently about how lying has become more of a given. You can change that by setting up ridiculously high personal standards and holding to them for a few generations. Every Brian Williams adds another five years to our skeptical era.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      I’m struck by how many interactions with the press are coming to resemble renaissance faires. The press conference, the nightly news, the debate, all involve people showing up and pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist. We go along with it, ignoring the anachronisms, then we head to our cars and drop the fake accents. All such events are treated as shows. They’re a debt that vice pays to virtue.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      @burt-likko

      1. Probably. I was born and grew up in the post-Network and Post-Broadcast News (Holly Hunter does not age!) era and Network seemed to get a lot of stuff right as a predictor. IIRC the big three used to see their news operations as a public service and the news sections were not expected to turn a profit but this changed in the 1980s. I simply can’t see any of the big networks doing a piece like Harvest of Shame now because it would upset corporate sponsorship and possibly corporate ownership. There were also much more serious public affairs shows. I remember watching a pretty serious one from the 1960s that involved letting James Baldwin speak about civil rights and racism in a very frank manner. The other guests were Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Marlon Brando.

      2. Maybe but not as much as #1. There are certainly more people constantly looking for opposition research though. The puppets question is interesting because obviously journalists want access to very important people but very important people might not want to answer brutal and direct question. When it comes to dictators like Assad (who did an interview with Barbara Walters during the start of the Syrian Civil War), should we just not interview them? If you were a journalist in the 1930s, would you refuse to interview Franco because of the obvious blood on his hands? How about Stalin during WWII?

      3. This one, not as much.

      I really think it is number 1.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      1. People definitely had more respect for authority figuers in the past than they do in the present but it is very hard to find a source for the decreased respect. Movies and television shows depicting journalists and other authority figuers as more human than they did in the Hayes Code era is a symptom rather than a cause. The conservative movement was based around distrust of governmet authority figuers since the New Deal Era and this distrust of what they saw as liberal, establishment type authority figuers continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The trauma over Vietnam and Watergate led to a similar distrust of authority figuers among liberals.

      2. I don’t think most people care. During the broadcast era, news was seen as a public service and no network expected to make money off it. All the networks decided to air their news programs at the same time so people would be somewhat forced to watch the news if they were watching TV. Once people had other options, news viewership numbers plumeted. TV did the same thing with newspapers earlier.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      “1. How much have movies and TV shows deflated the sort of credibility and gravitas once attributed to these figures?”

      Network came out while Cronkite was still on the air (at least) 5 days a week. Broadcast News came out before Gulf War One ushered in the modern age of cable news vacuity. (i.e. Arthur Kent). This deconstruction has been a long time coming, if that’s the cause.

      2. Couric got to Palin not by asking hard questions, but by asking easy ones. (It was something close to ‘What do you read?’). If Palin would have handled that any other way, either in situ or after the fact, it wouldn’t have been a thing.

      If anything, Brian Williams himself acquired gravitas by simply being the steady voice for 10 years. Heck, so has Jon Stewart.

      2 & 3. Methinks the present day makes it much easier than any other time to ‘rebrand’ yourself – once you’re given a chance and make the most of it. When Olbermann was at the height of his Q rating on MSNBC, nobody was thinking that much about his Sportscenter days.

      There is an overall trend for people to fall out of ‘hard news’ into softer stuff – Julie Chen, and most famously Pat Sajak come to mind – but that’s because it’s just an easier way of making a living. Fewer hours, more steady schedule, less road work, and most of the time, much more pay. You can’t begrudge someone that choice.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe
        Ignored
        says:

        tag help, please (and this was why I’m in favor of either a 5 minute edit the way Balloon Juice does it or a preview post button, or both).Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe
        Ignored
        says:

        @kolohe @burt-likko

        This apparently caused an Internet session this week:

        http://fusion.net/story/45832/to-all-the-young-journalists-asking-for-advice/

        Basically Felix Salmon is telling all would be hopefulls not to become journalists. I know a few of people who are or are trying to become non-fiction writers especially in journalism. The most successful of them has perched herself on just writing lightish and fluffy stories. More stuff on the benefits of renting vs. owning (which is valuable) or local restaurant write ups than hard-hitting investigative journalism. Those that want to do the more hard-hitting stuff are having a much harder time getting a foothold. Maybe the amount of people interested in hard-hitting but largely bias free news is slim?Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe
        Ignored
        says:

        “Maybe the amount of people interested in hard-hitting but largely bias free news is slim?”

        I think it’s broad enough, but the economics of it are tricky. The internet has decimated newspapers in 2 main ways 1) by greatly curtailing the market for classified ads (which in turn has contributed to a downward spiral in total page count and other advertising) and 2) making wire service stories available to all (which in turn makes the back pages redundant, though mitigated a bit by obviating the need to send ‘their man (woman)’ to another city or foreign desk – though that itself is a morale killer).

        (wire service stories themselves genuinely hew to the model of just-the-facts un-biased news, but they also tend to be just the first draft of the witnessing of any given event. They are as far away from investigative journalism as you can get).

        The biggest metro dailies still have enough resources (generally) to put people on the investigative beat, allowing them some time and leeway for publication deadlines. The biggest metros also have enough stories, and enough ‘easy’ stories, by the fact of their sheer size, to allow investigative journalists to have visible results for both management and the readership.

        (e.g. if, say hypothetically 0.1% of government employees are always corrupt, and your investigative skills are able to find 10% of the corruption, for a city of 300K employees, well then you’re going to be able find 30 cases of malfeasance a year and be able to generate 2-3 articles a month)

        Smaller markets, naturally, don’t have the newspapers with the same financial resources, and they also have a smaller target package.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kolohe
        Ignored
        says:

        @kolohe, the first hit the metropolitan dailies took was because of television and the suburbs. The golden age of metropolitan dailies was fueled by merchant advertising and classified ads. Television and radio took away the need for merchants to need newspapers as medium to reach potential customers. They could put ads on TV or radio instead for a much more direct link. The suburban dispersal of the population didn’t help much because fewer people were going to downtown merchants for their needs. Sites like Craig’s list took away the need for classified ads in newspapers.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe
        Ignored
        says:

        Tv news got rid of the pm paper, and led to morning daily consolidation, but the metro dailies did perfectly fine by expanding coverage of the suburbs and luring in suburban advertisers. (Car and real estate sections used to be huge parts of the weekend editions). Peak circulation and peak revenue/profitability for most happened sometime in the 90s, well after both suburbs and tv news were established institutions.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling
    Ignored
    says:

    When I grew up, there were three giants of network news: Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings.

    You mean, the relatively ordinary people who replaced Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, and Harry Reasoner/Howard K. Smith, all of whom tried to but couldn’t quite live up to the legacy of Ed Murrow.

    Honestly, it’s like your generation thinks it invented disillusionment.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    I think part of the fundamental problem is that the main thing that a news guy has to trade on is that whole “you can trust me” thing. Given the nature of reality and whatnot, the best you can really do on that is “I haven’t proven to be *UN*trustworthy yet.”

    A screwup, once above a particular size, makes that second sentence impossible… which means that the news programs can’t really trade on the former one.

    The big fight I’ve seen over this sort of thing so far is of the form “see how the liberal media is? We need to get this guy fired in order to encourage the rest of the liberal newscasters!” vs. “well, it wasn’t *THAT* big of a mistake and, besides, the other team will treat this as if they’re getting an important scalp over an important issue! TO THE BATTLE LINES!”

    That said, I totally understand why corporations that require you to be able to trust their newscasters will toss out an established guy who makes an honest mistake if it’s big enough.Report

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