On February 4, 2015, the world of journalism took a strong hit: NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted to falsifying a well-known story. The tale recounted Williams’ trials that he was aboard a helicopter that was forced down by RGP fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This admission puts a significant black mark on Williams’ distinguished career, and harkens back to older scandals involving Dan Rather and Lara Logan. In wake of this transgression, Williams took himself off the air for the “next several days.” This incident brings to light an increasing problem between celebrity journalists and news networks: how do they balance the need to draw in viewers with the need to convey the news. Ultimately, this incident should be a warning that the convergence of celebrity and journalism only results in a less informed and trusting public. What is new about the celebrity journalist in the 21st century is the fragmentation of the media market, making it even that more important for networks to do all they can to attract viewers.
Celebrity journalists can be found throughout our society. From Katie Couric to Anderson Cooper to Diane Sawyer, these trusted figures deliver Americans information about the nation and the world every evening. However, these reporters also help networks pull in viewers and ratings, an increasingly important metric in a crowded and fragmented media market. These celebrity journalists are “brands,” allowing networks to identify themselves with their individual brand.
This convergence between information and entertainment has created a gap in levels of political knowledge and engagement among Americans. As Markus Prior writes in his article “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout,” while new media can increase political knowledge, it also allows those who favor entertainment to avoid politics, which leads to lower levels of political knowledge and involvement. When it comes to celebrity journalists, this tension is front and center.
Therefore, when examining the Williams scandal through this lens, we can see that this is really a crisis over the tension between entertainment, storytelling, and news. In her National Public Radio piece, Alva Noe describes how Williams “got caught up in telling stories.” She writes that Williams’ job is to tell a good story, and that is precisely what he did. News “shouldn’t be entertainment,” she argues, and that those who report news should not try to entertain us. I agree with Noe’s assertion. The celebrity journalists, as a storyteller and a brand overshadows the real news of the day. The mission of journalism, to inform and increase civic engagement, becomes lost on the personal details of the anchor behind the desk. Additionally, if media companies allow these celebrity journalists a free pass when they lie or mislead the public because their brand is too important to drawing in viewers, the American public also loses and will be absorbed into the personal drama of the celebrity journalist, rather than the story they were attempting to report.
Now, there have been some scientific studies into why Williams would falsely remember a story. As the Los Angeles Times reports, news stories, conversations, and perceptions can lead to fabricated memories. This could be the case for Williams. After much debate, NBC suspended Brian Williams for six months without pay, an unprecedented move by major news network. NBC News President Deborah Turness stated that as a nightly news anchor, Williams has the duty to “uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.” While this is a major step forward, it does nothing to fix the problem of celebrity, entertainment, and news molding into one consumable bundle. Ultimately, the prioritization of revenue over quality news programming will likely perpetuate this problem, and there will be other Brian Williamses in the future. Going forward, viewers should always question the facts of a story and research for themselves. If people rely on a brand for their news, then people begin to believe everything that brand entails and contributes to the merging of journalists as storytellers. One wrong story can lead people to lose interest in the news and taint a journalist’s brand forever.
- Farhi, Paul. “NBC suspends Brian Williams as its lead anchor for six month.” Washington Post. 10 Feb. 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/2015/02/10/bc6b79d0-b187-11e4-827f-93f454140e2b_story.html?tid=sm_fb.
- Farhi Paul, Manuel Roig-Franzia, and Scott Higham. “Within NBC, an intense debate over whether to fire Brian Williams.” Washington Post. 11 Feb. 2015.
- Gold, Hadas and Dylan Byers. “Brian Williams apologizes for false Iraq story.” Politico. 4 Feb 2015 http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2015/02/brian-williams-apologizes-for-false-iraq-story-202130.html.
- Mejia, Brittny. “Scientists explain how Brian Williams’ memory may have failed him.” Los Angeles Times. 6 Feb. 2015 http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-memory-blame-brian-williams-20150206-story.html
- Noe, Alva. “Getting Caught Up In Telling Stories.” 6 Feb 2015 http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2015/02/06/383975796/getting-caught-up-in-telling-stories.
- Prior, Markus. “News vs. entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 49.3 (2005): 577-592.
- Snider, Mike. “Chopper pilot recalls Brian Williams’ 2003 inaccuracy.” USA Today. 9 Feb 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/02/08/chopper-pilot-rebuts-brian-williams/23082993/
- Yu, Roger. “Williams’ popularity, ratings could save his job.” USA Today. 6 Feb 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/02/05/nbc-mulls-brian-williams-helicopter-fib/22948289/.