Interlude—Stenographers to the stars: Jack Benny’s trademark joke is one of the greatest in show business history.
The joke was performed in 1948, on Benny's radio program. To hear it performed, click here.
“Your money or your life,” a mugger says.
The famous old skin-flight fails to respond—and the audience laughs for the first time.
The mugger makes his demand again. Exasperated, Benny says this:
“I’m thinking it over!”
That famous joke shows how much humor can be derived from comic persona alone. We thought of that joke when we read one part of Howard Kurtz’s 2007 book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War.
Kurtz described the process by which the three networks changed their long-standing news anchors over the course of a couple of years—the period when Brokaw, Rather and Jennings gave way to Williams, Couric and Sawyer.
By 2007, Brian Williams was the top-rated of these new anchors. Possibly for that reason, Kurtz fluffed him the most.
Kurtz panders and fawns about Williams right from page one of his book. As we’ll show you below, he repeats an endless series of stories designed to demonstrate Williams’ astonishing everydayness—the stories Williams himself loved to tell, presumably to market himself to the middle-American viewers who had made him number one.
Throughout this truly ridiculous book, Williams is cleaning sump pumps, doing laundry, draining the pasta and shopping at Target. He loves NASCAR as no one has ever done.
He’s “a former volunteer fireman,” we’re told in the book’s second paragraph—and quite a few times after that.
Kurtz was still at the Washington Post when he wrote Reality Show. The undisguised foolishness of this book helps us see the way major journalists were willing to fluff the guild’s biggest stars by this point in time.
A great deal of nonsense resides in this book; much of it involves Williams. We thought of Jack Benny’s trademark joke when Kurtz described the hard times this everyday man encountered during Hurricane Katrina.
In the past few weeks, many questions have been raised about the stories Williams has told about his experiences in New Orleans during that epic disaster. In this passage, Kurtz was willing to include at least one truly ridiculous tale:
KURTZ (page 171): He had spent that first night in the Superdome, with no power and no air flow, when it had turned into a squalid and dangerous hellhole for the thousands of hungry and desperate people who sought refuge inside. He had slipped and hit his head on the Astroturf and seen that the roof was starting to leak. He had gotten out the next day and then watched the city drown as the levees broke. He had seen the dead bodies and the women clutching their babies and the people scrounging to stay alive. He had watched the unbelievable scenes of looting. He had asked the state troopers to cover him and his crew ad they left in a car, carrying can of Vienna sausage that he planned to offer in exchange for his life if someone tried to steal the car.Let’s avert our gaze from the highly implausible claim that Williams “slipped and hit his head on the Astroturf,” thereby “see[ing] that the roof was starting to leak.”
Let’s avert our gaze from that. Instead, let’s focus on the claim that the anchor was planning to trade his sausages for his life.
Can anyone discern the logic in the highlighted tale Kurtz typed? According to Kurtz, Williams feared that some roving gang might steal his car and kill him during the widespread post-Katrina disorder.
Result? Skillfully, he brought along some Vienna sausages which he would trade for life!
What exactly are we missing in this improbable story? If hoodlums were willing to shoot Williams dead in order to steal his car, isn’t it likely that they would be willing to steal the sausages too? This story, though comical, makes little sense. But Howard Kurtz, a very bright man, apparently typed it as told.
Brian William was going to trade his sausages for his life! The story seems absurd on its face, but Williams was a huge star at this time. Therein resided a problem.
Alas! As the Washington Post reported this Sunday, Williams’ colleagues at NBC News knew that he tended to make stories up—but they played along with his tales.
“That’s Brian being Brian,” the Post says they said. All through Reality Show, Kurtz seems to play the same game.
Your Vienna sausages or your life! That story just strikes us as funny. But in other major passages, Kurtz was willing to help this very rich man construct an image of vast everydayness, following an NBC tradition established by the late Tim Russert.
How vast was Williams’ vast everydayness? In the treatment offered by Kurtz, it was extremely vast. Example:
It’s December 2, 2004 as the following passage takes place. Williams has just taken over for Tom Brokaw in the NBC News anchor chair. Kurtz is playing the role of full-blown celebrity courtier:
KURTZ (pages 38-39): Williams brought a very different background and sensibility to the job. He was forty-five years old with a wife, two teenage children, a dog and a rabbit. He lived in the Connecticut farmhouse in New Canaan where [his wife] had grown up. He was a big NASCAR racinExcept as an act of PR, that’s a somewhat peculiar passage. It paints Williams as an average-guy father of two, a man of vast everydayness.
g buff who took his son to the Speedway on Saturday nights and drove on a dirt track during vacations in Montana, where he owned a half-interest in a local team. Williams had asked to meet Dale Earnhardt at one NASCAR event, and they started lunching together at 21 and traveling together to races across the South. Earnhardt left a voice-mail message for Williams in early 2001, shortly before he was killed in a car crash…
Williams was determined to infuse the broadcast with the values that reflected his life experience. As a guy who went shopping with his family at Target, he wanted more coverage of small-town America and the problems facing parents in everyday life.
According to Kurtz, Williams loved NASCAR and shopped at Target. He was living in the same farmhouse where his wife grew up!
Williams wanted his nightly news show to provide “more coverage of small-town America and the problems facing parents in everyday life.” He was “determined to infuse the broadcast with the values that reflected his life experience.”
Kurtz was being a bit selective in his description of that life experience. In the course of his book’s many portraits of Williams, he omitted some basic facts about the life of the Target shopper whose children had that pet rabbit.
As of December 2004, was Williams living in “small-town America?” Not exactly, no.
Kurtz didn’t note that New Canaan, where Williams lived, was the nation’s eighth-wealthiest community. He didn’t say that the farmhouse in which the anchor was living had been handed down from in-laws who were well-connected in the TV industry, in a way Williams had once described (for details, see postscript).
As of December 2004, Williams was reportedly being paid $8 million per year. Kurtz omitted this fact as he fashioned this portrait of his small-town Target shopper.
During the age of Russert, NBC News worked hard to build this type of image around its major stars. Later in Reality Show, Kurtz went to work with the image again, telling us how Williams felt about Katie Couric, his newly-appointed wealthy celebrity rival:
KURTZ (page 265): It wasn’t that Williams was jealous of her fame, her huge salary, of the enormous wave of publicity surrounding her ascension. But Williams and others at NBC believed that Katie was in something of a bubble, living a wealthy celebrity lifestyle that set her apart from her viewers.Poor guy! Once he returned from his day at Price Club, he had to write all his own copy!
What was central to Williams’ conception of himself was that he was the down-to-earth journalist, the NASCAR fan, the onetime volunteer fireman, the guy who shopped at Price Club and watched American Idol. One recent Sunday his in-laws’ basement in Connecticut flooded and he spent four hours cleaning the gunk out of their sump pump. He was not above grunt work, either at home or in the news room, where he insisted on writing every word of his own copy.
Once again, Williams’ salary went unmentioned here. We were only told that the Price Club shopper didn’t resent Couric’s huge salary—although it seemed he did disapprove of her “wealthy celebrity lifestyle.”
Reality Show is comical throughout. The story of the Vienna sausages provides perhaps its most ludicrous moment. But especially in its profiles of Williams, Kurtz’s book rewards the reader again and again.
Jack Benny posed as a skinflint; it was all done in fun. For many years, Williams has posed as an everyday man—as “a college dropout who had spent years knocking around local television,” to cite the thumbnail Kurtz offers on the fourth page of his book, and many times thereafter.
Benny was joking; Williams was not. At NBC News, they knew he was lying, but they eschewed that rough term.
Tomorrow: The one kind of lie you can’t tell
Inside the Connecticut farmhouse: There’s nothing “wrong” with having in-laws who are well connected. There’s nothing wrong with getting career help from an industry titan.
It seems to us that there was something wrong in Kurtz’s treatment of the humble Connecticut farmhouse where Brian Williams was living. Way back when, a much younger Williams had described a fuller truth in an interview with Ellen Edwards of the Washington Post.
NBC News had just hired Williams away from WCBS-TV in New York. As part of his first major national profile, Williams described some help he said he got:
EDWARDS (8/18/93): [Williams’ wife] had grown up in New Canaan, Conn., where the two now live with their two children. And her family was friendly with the Salants, as in Richard Salant, former head of CBS News.Williams’ father-in-law, Hudson Stoddard, was a major figure at New York PBS. Richard Salant was head of CBS News for almost twenty years, extending through 1979. After being forced to retire by CBS company rules, he served as vice chairman at NBC News through 1983.
"He adopted me as a science project," says Williams. He grew close to Salant, having occasional talks at his house, and he credits him with building his journalistic foundation. At Salant's memorial service in February, among all the famous-name CBS eulogizers was Williams.
CBS anchor Connie Chung, an admirer and friend, says Williams developed a measured approach because of his exposure to Salant "by osmosis. ... I've always thought he would go right to the top," she says.
"I have a real, I think, good internal ethics meter regarding things," he says. "I should preface that by saying CBS was a good place to be brought up because the teaching there, the standards manuals there are extraordinary, much of that the work of Richard Salant."
When Williams married the farmer’s daughter, did Richard Salant really adopt him as a science project? We don’t have the slightest idea. Through the work of courtiers like Kurtz, this departure from everydayness has disappeared from Williams’ “life experience.”
This is the way your “press corps” works. Once they return from lunching with Earnhardt, it’s narrative all the way down!