My Assessment Of Brian Williams…
Five years ago, I tossed up a poll question; “Which news anchor bears the closest resemblance to William Hurt’s character in the 1980s movie ‘Broadcast News’?” At the time I said I was in a mischievous mood but the truth was I was on a fishing expedition. I wanted to see how much of what I observed as a news connoisseur was observed by others or whether my intuition and appraisal of certain news talents were views shared by others. I didn’t give away who I voted for because I didn’t want to pollute the results.
Like a lot of people I remember Williams from his White House days and his days at MSNBC. But those are such tightly controlled environments. I really got my first taste of Williams in the Iraq War and what he did there left an indelible mark that I have never been able to shake. I have told this story before.
At the start of the war there was the big “shock and awe” bombing campaign where command and control facilities were strategically and precisely taken out with big bombs. I had been channel hopping through the coverage but happened to be on MSNBC. Williams was reporting from Kuwait at the time and he made a comment, the precise verbiage escapes me and I haven’t been able to find a direct quote online except this one, that this was like Dresden.
Dresden, wholesale carpet bombing of a city with little intrinsic military value. Shock and Awe; targeted controlled bombing of command and control facilities of high military value. Two events that could not be more disparate in their goals and methods.
My jaw hit the floor. How could he possibly say that? How could he possibly think that? Did he not know what Dresden was? Was he trying to toss out jargon to make himself look smart without understanding the nature of the jargon being tossed? And is anyone at the Pentagon watching this broadcast?
I don’t know whether there were other references to Dresden made in the media in the first few days of the war. I do know that Don Rumsfeld held a presser either the next day or the day after and he went out of his way to chastise those who made Dresden allusions. I always considered it a direct rebuke of Williams but honestly it could have been a rebuke of anyone and there’s no way to know for sure without asking Rumsfeld.
I do sometimes wonder what would have happened to Williams career had he already been Nightly News anchor instead of merely a reporter for NBC/MSNBC.
But that one incident revealed a lot to me about Brian Williams. I know he was a former White House correspondent and heir apparent to Tom Brokaw but that was a bush league move a lightweight out of his depth newbie would make.
When I wrote about why the “Voice of God” still matters five years ago, I went into some detail about what separates the really good anchors from the middle of the road anchors. One part is directly pertinent to this story…
In truth, no anchor truly has a complete mastery or command of the story in all details. But then that’s the whole point. That voice of God lulls you into thinking they do, or at the very least convinces you they have more than a superficial knowledge of the subject at hand. And those with that talent are self-aware of their limitations. They won’t put themselves in a position where they’re caught flat footed or out of their depth. If they don’t know something, they’ll admit as much up front, rather than allow the viewer to discover that on their own, thus destroying the connection between viewer and anchor. Better to admit your shortcomings and maintain the relationship as an honest broker than try to skate by and hope the viewer doesn’t catch on that you really don’t know much about what you’re talking about.
In a single utterance, Dresden destroyed Brian Williams’ credibility with me. I never looked at him the same way again. I now looked at him as one who needed to be managed, to be controlled, because if you let him riff on his own he could get himself into trouble. And if you look at the way NBC has handled Williams since he became NBC News anchor you see a pattern that seems to underscore that. Very rarely do you see him in an uncontrolled environment.
Sure there was Katrina which put him on the map so to speak (though apparently parts of that are now part of this mess). There was Tahrir Square which was about as uncontrolled as it gets. But they were the once in a while exceptions. I never got the feeling NBC let him run loose the way CNN could let Anderson Cooper run loose and not have to worry or the way CBS uses Scott Pelley, FNC uses Shepard Smith, or ABC David Muir.
And that’s when I started thinking about Broadcast News and William Hurt. A lot of people think the Hurt character is an in over his head lightweight who doesn’t know jack. There is some truth to that but the Hurt character was a lot more than a self-aware dim bulb. I’m going to quote what Andrew Tyndall wrote here about this…
The depiction of the New Age anchor replacement for Jack Nicholson (Dan Rather?) in Broadcast News was more subtle than the fact that he was superficial, glib and out of his depth.
Those were the attributes that the movie appears to consign to him, because we are led to look at the network news operation through the eyes of Albert Brooks (Aaron Brown?).
But the Hurt character trips us up — and Brooks and Hunter too — with a couple of insights.
First, he understands that Old Media news was too male oriented. He covers a story on date rape and intuitively understands that there is an entire range of topics that were hitherto taboo that can make a female audience feel its agenda is being attended to. The personal is political, as it were.
Second, he is able to project a sense of calm and proportion and intelligence in a breaking news crisis — without having a flop sweat. Brooks says the words into a telephone, they travel into an earpiece, and come out of the anchor’s mouth. Cool under fire.
So skills that seemed superficial and glib to the old school journalist turned out to be insights of the new school.
My vote is for Brian Williams.
I’m in agreement with Tyndall.
I never felt that Williams was an idiot and you don’t get to be White House correspondent by being a lightweight either. He has that ability to directly connect with the viewer on a 1:1 level without looking like he’s reading a script or being overbearing and preachy. That’s not something you can teach anchors easily, it’s mostly instinctive.
But at the same time the observable evidence (read: what happens on TV) seems to suggest that Williams, despite being Managing Editor of his newscast, needs to himself be managed because if he starts riffing he could get into trouble. He did on Dresden. And he appears to have with however you want to characterize his missteps in this chopper fire story. Maybe Katrina too.
I can’t blindly trust someone like that. I have to leave my radar on, especially when it’s not a structured news cast scenario. I still believe he’s capable of busting out another Dresden at a moment’s notice.