Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brian Williams Reports On Hurricane Narcissus

During the intro to Sunday's Nightly News, the NBC announcer solemnly informed us that, "This is a special edition of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams reporting tonight from New Orleans." That's a laugh. I'm sorry, but NBC does not get to arbitrarily declare that a Nightly News broadcast is a "special edition". In order to be considered a special edition, a broadcast must either be on at a different time than usual, or be on for longer than usual. Sunday's Nightly News was neither. Regular time, regular length. Apparently, Brian Williams believes that his presence alone can qualify a Nightly News broadcast as a "special edition". Sorry, but no.

Five years ago, Brian Williams had been the anchor of Nightly News for less than a year. He had no identity, no style, and he was desperately struggling to emerge from the tall shadow of Tom Brokaw (a shadow from which he has yet to emerge). When Hurricane Katrina came along, Brian saw it as his chance to create an on-air identity. Brian decided that he would become the "caring and concerned" anchor. He would disregard the cardinal rule of journalism and cover Katrina emotionally, rather than objectively. And it worked. Brian won an undeserved Peabody award for his sobby, narcissistic coverage of Katrina. So it was Brian's good fortune that Katrina came along when it did. It made him. It gave him an identity, and he stuck with it. But it could have been a different identity. It's often said that if Rupert Murdoch thought he could have made more money by establishing FOX as a liberal media outlet, he would have done so. The same is true for Brian. If Brian thought he could have achieved higher ratings with a different on-air persona, he would have adopted that persona. For a different story, he might have become a different anchor. Perhaps the angry anchor. Or the muckraking anchor. Or the internationally-oriented anchor. Or the anti-administration anchor. But because it worked for Katrina, he decided to become the emotional anchor who pretends to care about the people of New Orleans. It was a gimmick five years ago, and it's still a gimmick today. Five years ago, Brian's reporting on Katrina was mostly about himself. And five years later, nothing has changed. It's still all about him. A typical example: Brian's Monday story in which he revisits the people of Katrina five years later began this way: "Five years ago this morning, I rose at five AM and in the dark eight stories below I saw water flowing down the street below my hotel room." I, I, my. Brian's ego is insatiable. His narcissism has no limit. This week, he decided that he was going to host Meet the Press and anchor Sunday's Nightly News. He had absolutely nothing to offer those shows that David Gregory and Lester Holt couldn't have offered, but when you're Brian Williams, you get to do whatever you want. I wonder how David Gregory and Lester Holt felt about being tossed off their regular gigs because Brian wanted more screen time. By the way--is there a single person out there who believes that Brian was allowed to anchor Sunday's Nightly News because he had important things to say? Of course not. Brian was allowed to anchor Sunday's broadcast because the NBC programming executives wanted their Emmy Awards show to get a good lead-in. And they felt that Brian would be a better lead-in than Lester Holt. (Although it didn't seem to make much of a difference--this year's overall Emmy ratings were virtually the same as last year's, but in the important 18-49 demographic they were down slightly.)

The past five days have been a low point even for the much-diminished Nightly News. For five straight days, we got a litany of emotionally charged anecdotes about Katrina from Brian and other NBC correspondents. We got a bunch of then-and-now stories about people and structures five years later. Mostly, we got Brian talking about himself. It's shameful that a broadcast titled Nightly News was allowed to transform itself into a Katrina memorial program. On most days, a 22-minute Nightly News broadcast contains around 8-10 minutes of actual news interspersed among the stories about cuddly animals, sick children, celebrities and people who are "Making A Difference". For each of the past five broadcasts, we were lucky to get five minutes of actual news, lest it interrupt the flow of sappy Katrina stories. Honestly, the FCC should revoke NBC's license to broadcast news. There's barely any news in Nightly News. Maybe NBC should change the program's title. Since NBC already has The Today Show and The Tonight Show, Nightly News could become The Evening Show. By removing the word "news" from the show's title, NBC would no longer be obligated to pretend that Nightly News is a news program. Brian and his producers would then be free to devote the entire broadcast to stories about Brad Pitt, Sally Field, Bruce Springsteen and Knut the polar bear. They could devote minutes each night to promoting NBC entertainment shows. They could run story after story about their sponsors. (Nightly News currently airs frequent stories about NBC shows and sponsors, but as The Evening Show they could do even more of these stories.)

The funny thing is that Brian actually thinks his coverage of the Katrina story (both then and now) is any better (or different) than what the other networks put on the air. That's absurd. All three networks covered the story in virtually the same manner. They visited the same places and interviewed the same people. There's Brian talking to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. There's Diane Sawyer talking to Landrieu. There's Brian in and around New Orleans. There's Diane in and around New Orleans. There's Brian revisiting the people he talked to five years ago. There's CBS news doing the same. Same old, same old. Despite what Brian thinks, there's little difference in what appears on the evening broadcasts of NBC, ABC and CBS. (He also thinks that NBC's coverage of the BP oil spill was better than that of the other networks. Again, it's all the same. One night, David Camardelle is on NBC, another night he's on CBS and another night he's on ABC. Same with Billy Nungesser.) Even Brian's interviews with President Obama and Brad Pitt added little to the Katrina discussion.

Every night, Brian reports extensively on his favorite subject--himself. Perhaps the Peabody Committee should introduce a new category--Best Reporting About Brian Williams. I think Brian would be a lock to win that award.

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