Why Brian Williams Was the Perfect News Anchor for the "Meme Generation" & Farewell to Jon Stewart, Too
While discussing his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, the late Gore Vidal once said memory is a tricky thing: we never remember what really happened—we only remember the version that occurred to us the last time we thought about it.
Perhaps that’s what happened to suspended NBC News Anchor Brian Williams. Maybe he forgot the original facts and remembered the imaginings that kept him company the last time he thought about them. Unfortunately, he repeated those imagined memories on national television, and now his career with NBC seems all but over. The network may be talking “suspension” only as a public-relations gesture.
In another world, the network might never risk having an outed liar working their newsroom after such a public assault on his credibility. He would be toast. Probably the only person on the planet who can understand how he’s feeling in this hour is that other disgraced news anchor—Dan Rather.
Both were outdone by their own distortions of the truth, which were linked one way or another to the presidency of George W. Bush. Dan Rather, with decades of journalistic expertise behind him, failed to get the necessary second source before going public with a story about the president’s military service. Williams became inebriated, it seems, by his own celebrity and embellished the truth of what happened to him during what can only be known as Bush’s war.
But if the pundits are to be believed, it may turn out that Williams is not toast after all. It all depends, it seems, on the ratings. He was, after all, the most-watched news anchor in the country. If the ratings tank while his African-American replacement, Lester Holt, is at the helm, speculation has it that the network may find a way to bring Williams back. Should that occur, it will be the fulfillment of Paddy Chayefsky's prophecy in the film, Network, in which a deranged news anchor gets his job back after telling his audience to shout, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." In that film, the head of programming (Faye Dunaway) falls into bed with the defrocked head of news (William Holden). Their doomed-from-the-start relationship is metaphor for what happens when the line between news and entertainment becomes blurred. When the public's right to know is in conflict with its desire to be entertained, the only thing likely to get damaged is our democracy.
I don’t believe in kicking a man when he’s down, and these comments are not intended to criticize Brian Williams. His downfall happens to come as I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The guidance given by Atticus Finch to his daughter, Scout, is fresh in my mind: “You never really understand another person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Williams’ embellishment of the truth is a kind of meme. The simplest definition of that word is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." But its root in ancient Greek (mimeme) has to do with imitation. Just as he slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon - itself a kind of meme - Williams seems to have "memed" the truth about his Iraqi war experience. This makes him the perfect news anchor for the current "Meme Generation." Author Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the children of the 1970's the "Me" Generation, calling them "the spoilt-rotten eggs of a narcissistic age." Today's lot has added another "me" to Wolfe's original characterization. Me plus me equals "meme," and it comes about, in part, because of 24/7 handheld access to the World Wide Web. Whether he set out to be or not, Brian Williams, with his multiple appearances on the talk-show circuit and the unfortunate retelling of a much-embellished tale, has become their perfect newscaster.
Anyone who has modified a tweet or altered a viral video to suit his own purposes—be it joke or ironic comment—has created a meme. Sometimes the imitated thing becomes more interesting than the original and might even replace it in the public mind. "Hide your kids. Hide your wife" morphed from a news soundbite to a viral YouTube video to a profit-making iTunes single. Perhaps that’s what Williams was hoping when he allowed a false statement, made on Late Night with David Letterman, to seep into an actual newscast. Maybe he felt the meme had become established enough in the public mind that it was possible to repeat it with impunity.
You can only hope to get away with a thing like that if you believe that what you say will not be scrutinized too closely by a kicked-back audience adrift on a sea of vibrating recliners.
In fact, the term “public mind” is becoming a dinosaur and may even be obsolete. What we have now is a mass audience so anesthetized to reality that it cares only for its own comfort and pleasure. A public is a group of individuals. It engages in discourse and debate. Sometimes, in the interest of the common good, it agrees to compromise.
An audience, on the other hand, is but a tool of marketing. Into this world, the networks present us with picture-perfect models that fit our preconceived ideas of what a TV news anchor should look like. Perhaps the networks have forgotten that Walter Cronkite was not cute. Neither was Edward R. Murrow. Nor Eric Sevareid. Those great correspondents earned their distinction during World War II. Except for the time Cronkite removed his glasses and became choked up while reporting the assassination of John Kennedy, those broadcasters were never the center of the story. They held to a standard that matched their belief in the role an informed public must play in a healthy democracy. With the devolution of that public into a consumerist mass, perhaps that kind of journalism is no longer needed.
If you care at all about these things, you might want to read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. If you have a bit more time, there’s Jerry Mander’s, Five Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Or if you have only a few moments, there is Jon Stewart’s take on what went down with Brian Williams and the media’s sudden interest in the truth.
It turns out that Stewart himself is also leaving the anchor desk. As this clip from NPR points out, a large number of viewers get their news only from Stewart's satire on Comedy Central. For nearly sixteen years, he has merged news with entertainment, creating both commentary and context for his audience. If you are shaking your head that it shouldn't be like this, that people should get their facts from an objective source before surrendering to satire, you are too late. Because, as the most trusted man in America used to say: "That's the way it is."
Below are two clips from Chayefsky's 1976 movie, Network, which speak to these things. Extreme? You bet it is. And yet...
It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote in his poem, "Retribution," lines that most nearly apply to the final outcome of this sad but ultimately uplifting story.
Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all.
On this day in 1994, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith is convicted in the murder of African-American civil rights leader Medgar Evers, over 30 years after the crime occurred. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home on June 12, 1963, while his wife, Myrlie, and the couple's three small children were inside.
Medgar Wiley Evers was born July 2, 1925, near Decatur, Mississippi, and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After fighting for his country, he returned home to experience discrimination in the racially divided South, with its separate public facilities and services for blacks and whites. Evers graduated from Alcorn College in 1952 and began organizing local chapters of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In 1954, after being rejected for admission to then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School, he became part of an NAACP campaign to desegregate the school. Later that year, Evers was named the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi. He moved with his family to Jackson and worked to dismantle segregation, leading peaceful rallies, economic boycotts and voter registration drives around the state. In 1962, he helped James Meredith become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, a watershed event in the civil rights movement. As a result of his work, Evers received numerous threats and several attempts were made on his life before he was murdered in 1963 at the age of 37.
Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and Ku Klux Klan member widely believed to be the killer, was prosecuted for murder in 1964. However, two all-white (and all-male) juries deadlocked and refused to convict him. A second trial held in the same year resulted in a hung jury. The matter was dropped when it appeared that a conviction would be impossible. Myrlie Evers, who later became the first woman to chair the NAACP, refused to give up, pressing authorities to re-open the case. In 1989, documents came to light showing that jurors in the case were illegally screened.
Prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter worked with Myrlie Evers to force another prosecution of Beckwith. After four years of legal maneuvering, they were finally successful. At the third trial they produced a riflescope from the murder weapon with Beckwith's fingerprints, as well as new witnesses who testified that Beckwith had bragged about committing the crime. Justice was finally achieved when Beckwith was convicted and given a life sentence by a racially diverse jury in 1994. He died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80.
THE REST OF THE STORY
In the Storify slide-show presentation below are news clips about the trial, archival photographs of Evers' funeral, and Eudora Welty's chilling short story, "Where is the Voice Coming From," which tells the story of Evers' murder from the point of view of the assassin.
Among the remarkable people born February 6, we can look to and celebrate the contributions of Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth II, Bob Marley, and Babe Ruth. Singer Natalie Cole is on this list. So is journalist and author Tom Brokaw. February 6 is also the birth date of the third Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, remembered most infamously through time for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel.
But this page directs attention to French New Wave Director Francois Truffaut, whose insightful films include Fahrenheit 451, Jules and Jim, The Man Who Loved Women, and The Last Metro. In a world where homogeneity and conformity of one kind or another seem to rule the day, Truffaut's vision offers the piquant and the peculiar. They are frankly sexual and startlingly candid. The plots matter, but the characters matter more. There is plenty more to say about his great contribution, and the Storify slide-show presentation below will fill in some of the blanks. Don't miss Richard Brody's trenchant New Yorker Magazine observations in Slide #3 or Criterion's "Three Reasons" to like Jules and Jim. As with other presentations of this kind, you can click on a link within each slide to see the video or read the text.
What Rosa Parks - 2/4/1913 - Has in Common with Charles Lindbergh & Betty Friedan - Beyond Birthdays
No doubt astrologists will find some significance in the fact that Rosa Parks, Charles Lindbergh and Betty Friedan were all born on February 4. But they have something other than their Aquarian roots in common too.
When Lindbergh completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "In the late spring of 1927, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams."
The operative term here is the word dream. Lindbergh flew. Rosa Parks sat down. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and created the National Organization for Women.
Each of these heroes took the human race to a new, higher place. They remembered their own best dreams. And in doing so, reminded the rest of us never to forget our own.
Here's a Storfiy slide-show presentation on Rosa Parks. As Sartre tells us, sometimes you have to say No. As Rosa showed us, sometimes sitting down is the same as standing up for what you believe in.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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