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...