Monday, February 21, 2011

Brian Williams Is A Blue Collar NASCAR Guy

Even by Nightly News's appallingly low standards, Monday's broadcast was a huge waste of the viewers' time. The entire second half of the broadcast (eight minutes and fifty five seconds) was comprised of three "news stories" that did not contain a single shred of news among them. Anne Thompson wasted nearly four minutes telling us about the impending changeover from standard incandescent light bulbs to the new compact fluorescent bulbs. We got a two-and-a-half minute "Making A Difference" story on a woman who underwent a heart transplant. And Brian Williams himself narrated a story about Sunday's Daytona 500 race. These three stories could have been summed up in one sentence: You'll soon have to start using compact fluorescent light bulbs, organ donations are a good thing and Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. That's it. The entire second half of Monday's Nightly News in five seconds. I could have saved the producers eight minutes and fifty seconds, which they could have used to report on actual news stories. Like what's going on in Libya or Wisconsin. Or the latest on Will & Kate.

It's not surprising that Brian spent more than two and a half minutes reporting on the Daytona 500 story. He often reports on NASCAR. On Friday, he narrated a 30-second tribute to Dale Earnhardt (which egotistically included a photo of Brian standing next to Earnhardt), followed by a three-and-a-half minute profile of Jeff Gordon. Last May 11, Brian told us all about the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It's no accident that Brian spends so much Nightly News time talking about auto racing. He does this intentionally to project a certain image. And for that purpose, NASCAR is a smart choice. Brian is desperate to be seen as a blue collar, working class-type regular guy. He thinks he's a character in a Springsteen song. He imagines himself as the guy that wears work boots, punches the clock and goes to the corner bar with the other factory workers. And publicly identifying himself with auto racing is a good way for Brian to adopt this persona. It's a great way to appeal directly to the red state, rural, small town demographic that Brian is so eager to pander to. NASCAR is like a code word. For people who don't follow racing, it doesn't have any meaningful significance. But for the millions and millions of racing fans throughout the U.S., mentioning NASCAR is like a secret handshake. It lets those people know that Brian thinks of himself as a salt-of-the-earth regular guy, just like them. He doesn't want to be perceived as a blue state, northeastern member of the liberal New Yawk media elite. And he certainly doesn't want to be seen as someone with an 8-figure salary. He wants to be thought of as Joe Sixpack, the guy standing next to you at a NASCAR race or waiting to play pool at the bar. Look at the things Brian claims to like: Dogs, New Orleans, Medal of Honor winners (and the military in general), football, Springsteen, American cars. Now I can't say for sure whether Brian really likes any of these things. But I can tell you this: All of Brian's "likes" have been painstakingly researched and selected to bolster his on-screen image and maximize his likeability factor with the viewers. Who doesn't like dogs? (Maybe a few militant cat owners.) Who doesn't like American cars? Or New Orleans? Or the troops? Or football? Pinko commie subversive agitators, that's who. But it's important for viewers not to confuse the character Brian Williams with the real Brian Williams. The Brian Williams we see every night on Nightly News is a role he plays on TV. It's like Larry David's character on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or Matt LeBlanc's character on Showtime's "Episodes". The character may share qualities with the real person--there may be similarities--but the two should not be confused. Brian's on-air persona is to wrap himself in the American flag. And not only figuratively. When he's anchoring his broadcast, the screen behind Brian often displays a waving flag, as if he's trying to out-FOX the people at FOX News. Brian has carefully cultivated this hyper-patriotic image in order to have the broadest possible appeal to the viewers. Like a politician who wears a different hat at each appearance. In Cleveland, wear an Indians hat. In Cincinnati, wear a Reds hat. When it suits your purposes, wear a Dale Earnhardt hat. And like a politician, Brian is desperate for your vote. Viewers vote by watching a particular news broadcast. We can vote for Brian, Katie or Diane. Ironically, on any given night, 90% of Americans do not watch any of the three network newscasts, so Brian, Katie and Diane are essentially competing for scraps. Which makes every vote (viewer) that much more important. So by showing everyone how much he likes NASCAR or dogs or American cars, Brian is campaigning hard for our votes. (Although I don't see Katie or Diane doing much campaigning.) And apparently it's a successful strategy, since Nightly News is the top-rated network evening newscast (we know that's true because Brian tells us it is). So Brian owes a debt of gratitude to the NASCAR people. And to the NFL. And to dogs. And to Larry David.

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