Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lester Holt Is Just Brian Williams Without The Narcissism

Ever since Brian Williams lied his way out of his job as NBC Nightly News weekday anchor 17 months ago, people have been lavishing praise on his replacement, Lester Holt.  Lester is a professional.  He's a serious news reporter.  He's a real journalist, they say.  Many people, including myself, hoped that Lester was the Moses who would finally lead NBC News out of the Brian Williams desert and return the organization to its former place of prominence and journalistic respectability, as exemplified by the legendary journalist/anchors Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor.  Maybe Lester would take the news seriously.  Maybe he would break with recent tradition and devote the entire broadcast to real news.  Maybe he would stop padding Nightly News with idiotic drivel.  Maybe...maybe...maybe...
Nah.  The truth is that in the 17 months since Lester Holt began anchoring Nightly News, nothing has changed.  The only difference between Nightly News under Brian and Nightly News under Lester is that Lester reports fewer Springsteen stories and doesn't waste our time reporting the death of every Medal of Honor recipient like Brian did (it should be noted that Brian was a board member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, a private organization that solicits donations for the Medal of Honor Society.  So every time Brian reported on a Medal of Honor recipient, he was promoting an organization on whose board he served.  He was essentially fundraising with no disclosure). 

Before taking over for Brian, Lester Holt was an adequate weekend anchor in an undemanding and low-pressure environment.  He flew under the radar.  But unfortunately, under the spotlight of five-day-a-week scrutiny, Lester has shown that he's just Brian Williams without the rampant egotistical narcissism.  It's not breaking news to report that Brian Williams had the biggest ego on TV (bigger, even, than Brian's fellow NBC host Donald Trump).  Whenever possible (and as anchor, it was usually possible), Brian began news stories with phrases such as "If you're like me..." or "For those of us..." (the latter phrase was always followed by a self-congratulatory statement like "...who love dogs...," "...are Supreme Court buffs...," "...who played high school football" or "...who are die-hard New York Giants fans...").  Lester opts for the more humble "So many" (as in "...the credit cards so many use..." or "...the cars so many drive...").  Humility aside, Lester is just the latest snake oil salesman to stand in front of the NBC cameras at 6:30 PM Monday through Friday (holidays excluded) and use his carnival barker's bag of tricks to keep people tuned in to his broadcast.  Unlike Brian, Lester doesn't make Nightly News about himself.  But like Brian, Lester's Nightly News isn't really about news, either.  Lester's primary job isn't to report important events–it's to maximize ratings so the NBC News sales department can charge the highest possible ad rates for Nightly News commercials (and also so that the NBC prime time lineup can have the best possible lead-in).  And like his predecessor, Lester does not allow ethics to stand in the way of ratings.  He will say practically anything to keep viewers watching.  He frequently uses phrases like "late word," "late details" and "late developments" to describe stories that had already been reported by other news organizations 12 or more hours before Nightly News came on the air.  He regularly uses decidedly non-news terms like "shocking," "stunning," "amazing," "incredible," "breathtaking," "chilling," "spectacular," "astounding," "remarkable," "heartwarming," "inspiring" and "jaw-dropping" to titillate viewers and hard-sell the news–or, more specifically, the twaddle that he passes off as news.  By the way, those are the same words regularly used by Mario Lopez, the host of "Extra," the show that follows NBC Nightly News in many markets and the show from which Nightly News has become virtually indistinguishable.  Maybe NBC should just merge the two shows and call the new program "NBC Nightly News Extra With Lester and Mario."  Just think of how much fun that  show would be.
When the Nightly News producers or the NBC corporate weasels need someone to plug NBC's news or entertainment shows (like "The Today Show," "The Tonight Show," "Meet the Press," "Saturday Night Live" or "Little Big Shots"), Lester's their guy.  When they need someone to promote NBC/Universal movies (like "Jurassic World," "Race" or "Unbroken"), Lester's their guy.  When they need someone to shill for NBC Sports (witness the amount of time Nightly News devotes to "news reports" on NBC sporting events like horse racing or NASCAR), Lester's their guy (and just wait until Lester begins devoting half of Nightly News to hyper-aggressively plugging the Olympics).  When they need someone to read a sham news story to promote a product made by a regular NBC sponsor (like McDonald's, Bayer or Nabisco), Lester's their guy (before Lester, of course, Brian was their guy).  Lester will look directly into the camera and make his sales pitch without any visible trace of embarrassment.  And another thing he will do is look directly into the camera and lie to the viewers. 

Lester always begins Nightly News with a 45-to-50 second intro in which he teases the 5 or 6 stories that are most likely to excite viewers and keep them from changing the channel.  It's no different than when a drama series begins with teases of that night's sauciest moments (without actually giving anything away), an age-old TV ploy (previously used for radio dramas and movie serials) designed to keep asses in the seats.  But what Lester doesn't tell us is often as important as what he does tell us.  On the June 23, 2016 Nightly News, this was the third story Lester teased at the top of the broadcast: "Movie theater hostage crisis!  A masked gunman holding dozens!  Chaos and panic!  Fears of another mass attack as police storm the cinema!" 
At minute 15, before the broadcast's first commercial break, Lester teased the story again: "Still ahead tonight–panic inside a movie theater when a gunman storms inside and takes hostages!  Police on the move rushing to the scene!" 
After the commercial break–18 minutes after Lester first teased the story–he finally tells us one important fact that he had heretofore omitted: The movie theater hostage crisis was in Germany
So are we to believe that Lester simply forgot to mention this salient bit of information 18 minutes earlier?  That in the rush to impart all the important news of the day, it had just slipped his mind?  Of course not.  In collaboration with his producers, Lester intentionally withheld the location of the story–as he has done many times before–as a tactic to stimulate the viewers' interest and keep them tuned in under false pretenses.  It's a well-known fact in the U.S. news business that viewers are far more interested in domestic news than in foreign news.  News from foreign countries (especially those with strange-sounding names) is a turn-off.  Even news from our neighboring countries of Mexico and Canada often causes people to zone out and lose interest.  Lest Lester supporters (not to be confused with Leicester supporters)...
...think that this was an isolated incident, here are some other instances when his teases intentionally omitted the foreign location of stories so as to fool the viewers into thinking they were in the U.S.:

On the August 18, 2015 broadcast, Lester teased a story about a bombing: "Manhunt for a bomber!  Authorities say this is the killer caught on camera as a new explosion rocks a major tourist city and a mystery deepens!"  However, Lester waited five minutes before telling us that the bombing was in Bangkok.  (It goes without saying that Lester's use of the word "authorities" was meant to imply "U.S. authorities.")
During the March 16, 2016 Nightly News intro, Lester teased a story about a prison escape this way: "A shocking escape caught on camera!  A helicopter hijacked at gunpoint–flying over a prison as inmates grab hold and hang on for their lives!  Guards helpless to stop them!"  It wasn't for another 12 minutes that correspondent Blake McCoy finally revealed that the prison break had happened outside of Montreal, Canada.
On May 4, 2016, Lester's intro included a tease for a story about a wildfire: "Towering inferno!  Frantic evacuations as a massive wildfire explodes out of control torching entire neighborhoods!  Even the emergency operations center staff forced to flee!"  Seventeen minutes later, Lester finally told us that the fire was in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
The following night, Lester also teased the fire story without mentioning Canada: "The monster inferno exploding–now bigger than New York City!  Tonight we go behind the fire lines!  An astonishing scope of devastation!"  I guess Lester should be commended–this time it took him only four minutes to finally reveal that the fire was in Canada.  (Of course, mentioning New York City was clearly meant to imply by association that the fire was in the U.S.)
And again the next night: "Running for their lives!  The monster inferno caught on camera devouring a home minutes after a family escapes and watches everything they have burn!"  This time, Lester regressed a bit–he didn't mention that the fire was in Canada until six minutes into the broadcast.
On the June 30, 2016 broadcast, Lester teased a story at minute 15 about a house tumbling off a rain-eroded cliff and crashing into the houses below: "Over the edge! Shocking destruction triggered by heavy rains all caught on camera!"  It wasn't until eight minutes later that Lester finally admitted that this happened in Nagasaki, Japan.
During the April 2, 2015 Nightly News intro, Lester teased this story: "Campus massacre!  At least 147 killed, scores injured as terrorists unleash a horrifying attack!"  Eventually–five minutes later–Lester got around to telling us that the attack had actually happened in Kenya.  Thanks, Lester.
(It should be noted that the accompanying video clips for these teases are always carefully edited to avoid showing any images that would indicate that the action was happening outside the U.S.)

So Lester and his producers found a loophole, a crafty way to keep people tuned in and boost ratings: Don't tell the viewers that the story being teased happened outside the U.S.  Which is the same thing as tricking them into thinking it happened inside the U.S.  Which, by any standard, is lying.  But Lester doesn't care.  If bamboozling the viewers will keep them from changing the channel and give him bigger ratings, he's all for it.  Yes, Lester Holt is a professional.  He's a serious news reporter.  He's a real journalist.

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