Part 2—All for the love of Rush Limbaugh: On balance, the New York Times is doing a lousy job discussing Williams-gate.
In this morning’s Science Times section, Tara Parker-Pope seems to advance the assumption that we are dealing with issues of memory in the Brian-gate matter. The possibility that we’re dealing with issues of dissembling is barely voiced once Parker-Pope starts chatting with the nation's “memory experts.”
Has Brian Williams been dissembling—perhaps even lying—over these many years? We can’t exactly tell you! In this morning’s op-ed column, David Brooks seems to suggest that Williams has been “puffing up his Iraq adventures” in a way which carries a moral dimension.
That said, Brooks suggests that we need to show compassion about these “transgressions,” that we need to look for ways to build “community solidarity.”
For ourselves, we don’t favor moral stampedes concerning matters like this. But what kind of “community” really exists between people like Williams, who may perhaps be telling his tales in pursuit of fame and massive wealth, and the millions of regular people who may get conned in the process?
Brooks never asks that question. Neither did David Carr in yesterday’s mealy-mouthed column, in which he performed his standard function at the Times—giving readers the (false) impression that the New York Times plays a watchdog role with respect to the press as a whole.
In fairness, Carr’s assessment of RPG-gate was perhaps a bit revealing. Consider this peculiar passage:
CARR (2/9/15): Those of us who worked the Hurricane Katrina coverage rolled our eyes at some of the stories Mr. Williams told of the mayhem there, but it was a dark, confusing place and a lot of bad stuff happened, so who were we to judge? But armed service and its perils are seen as sacred and must not be trifled with. The soldiers who ended up in harm’s way and survived that day are calling him out because their moral code requires it.Say what? According to Carr, journalists had been “rolling their eyes” for some time at Williams’ kooky Katrina stories. But who were they to judge?
In our view, it isn’t their primary role “to judge”—but these journalists might have thought that it was their role to challenge or question inaccurate statements.
Not to Carr! In the world of Carr, American soldiers have a stronger “moral code” than American journalists do when it comes to matters like this! That strikes us as a wonderfully accurate non-admission admission.
Should people be piling on Williams for the many ridiculous statements he seems to have made through the years? Brooks approvingly cites a point made by Carr. “Williams’s transgressions were not part of his primary job responsibilities,” he says, largely correctly.
As we noted yesterday, Williams’ many peculiar statements were mostly rendered in interviews or speeches—not on NBC Nightly News. That said, we thought we’d cite something he said long ago, right there in his anchor chair.
Have Williams’ “transgressions” mainly involved ancillary topics? Have they mainly been offered in secondary venues?
Maybe yes, maybe no—we’ll return to that question later in the week. But on Sunday, a commenter to Maureen Dowd’s column recalled some statements from Williams’ anchor chair, statements the handsome anchor made when it really mattered.
These statements were made in September 2002. Brian was still on the way up, chasing the truly gigantic millions that would come his way when he took over Tom Brokaw’s chair.
Brian was still one step from the top. This is what this New York Times reader said she recalled him saying and doing as the war with Iraq drew near:
COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK (2/8/15): I used to watch The News with Brian Williams which was broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC at 9 PM Monday-Friday before he got his Nightly News gig. I was a working parent and that was the only time I could catch up on the news.We fired up the Nexis machine. We were eager to see what Williams had actually said as the country he ostentatiously loves moved toward a disastrous war.
I stopped watching during the run up to the war in Iraq. Al Gore had given a speech that day against a US invasion in Iraq. In his run up to his lede on the speech, Williams acted like Gore was an insignificant politician who had the gall to disagree with the Bush/Cheney propaganda machine's meme that the US needed to rush to war with Iraq. He wondered aloud what Rush Limbaugh would think of Gore's overreach. As far as Williams was concerned, Limbaugh was the statesman and Gore was the nut job. It was instantly clear to me Williams was the worst kind of journalist, one who embraced popular opinion, not a search for the truth.
I never watched that show again. I've never watched NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, either. I would be happy to see him go.
This reader’s recollection wasn’t completely perfect. But in some ways, Williams’ behavior was even worse than she recalled.
The reader was recalling Williams’ program from September 24, 2002. The day before, Gore had given a speech in San Francisco warning against the wisdom of waging a war with Iraq.
Much of what Gore said in that speech turned out to be prescient. But within the corporate elite where Williams was hoping to make the great score, the rush to war was underway—and this is the remarkable way he framed his lengthy discussion of Gore's remarks:
WILLIAMS (9/24/02): Is it un-American to speak out against the Bush plan to take on Iraq? Is it democratic to ridicule and threaten those who do?It was odd to start the discussion by asking if Gore’s speech had been “un-American.” It was odd, but not plainly “wrong.” It would all depend on where Williams took things from there.
Call it the loyal opposition, caught in the crossfire tonight as the nation prepares to go to war, perhaps, and a former vice president ignites a firestorm.
ANNOUNCER: The News on CNBC continues. Here again is Brian Williams.
WILLIAMS: Good evening once again, and welcome back.
Uh-oh! As Williams continued, he immediately cited a friend. The commenter’s memory was correct on this score. The friend Williams cited was Limbaugh:
WILLIAMS (continuing directly): Today our friend, Rush Limbaugh, told his radio listeners he almost stayed home from work, not due to any health reasons but because he was so livid at the speech given yesterday by former Vice President Al Gore criticizing the Bush administration's apparent march to war in Iraq.Williams’ friend was so upset that he almost stayed home from work! And not only that! At least one of his callers that day had called Gore “un-American!”
The anger that physically hobbled Mr. Limbaugh positively ignited his callers today, at least one of whom called Mr. Gore “un-American” for what he said yesterday.
This was a very strange way to frame a news discussion. But earlier that afternoon, Williams has done the same darn thing! Appearing on Ron Insana’s 5 PM CNBC program, he had teased his own upcoming show:
INSANA (9/24/02): Now, Brian, what about Al Gore's remarks? He's been talking about this potential war on Iraq of late and that the war on terror might, in fact, be injured by going after Saddam Hussein. What's the reception to that?One caller to Limbaugh’s show had called Gore “anti- or un-American!” For whatever reason, Williams chose to use that hoary old claim as the framework for that evening’s discussion.
WILLIAMS: Well, for a lot of Democratic liberals, a lot of people in what passes for an anti-war movement, Al Gore broke the silence yesterday in his speech and he has absolutely ignited conservatives across the country. Rush Limbaugh said today he almost couldn't go on the air he was so angry at this speech yesterday. He did, nonetheless, and took non-stop calls of the like-minded for several hours.
Because of the content, we're going to talk about it on our broadcast tonight. Exactly who was willing to speak up against the notion of the US going to war? And as Gore was labeled today, is it anti-American to do so?
INSANA: All right. Brian, we'll see you in a little while.
WILLIAMS: All right, Ron. Thank you.
Judged most charitably, this represented terrible news judgment. That said, did Williams possibly have a motive for building his discussion around the fact that his friend, Rush Limbaugh, was hugely upset with Gore?
We can’t answer that question. We can tell you this—at this time, NBC News was working hard to make itself red state- and conservative-friendly.
The fawning to Limbaugh and Limbaugh’s perspective was hardly unknown to the network at this time. Jack Welch was no longer in charge at GE, NBC’s corporate owner. But conservative power was still on the ascent in Washington, and NBC had worked for years to dispel the thought that its regular guy, blue-collar anchors were part of the “liberal media.”
Long before Williams told silly stories about his heroism, he spent years telling silly, hazy stories about his alleged blue-collar roots as his role as a man of the people. His deference to his friend, Rush Limbaugh, fit nicely into NBC’s branding during this era, as well as to the branding of Williams himself.
Perhaps for these reasons—or possibly not!—Williams built his discussion this night around the horror felt by his friend, one of whose callers had called Gore “un-American.” One year before, Chris Matthews had played the same card with respect to Gore, telling Don Imus that Gore “doesn’t look American,” even.”
NBC News played these cards for some time as the network chased the Clintons and then Candidate Gore all over the land. For years, we liberals dumbly sat on our hands and allowed these attacks to persist.
(No one is dumber than we are! Try to keep this fact in mind as the same people who tolerated all these attacks try to sell you a new improved “liberal” approach.)
What kind of community can we built with hustlers who play the game this way? We aren’t sure, but that commenter to Dowd’s column recalled a memorable performance by Williams—and it was hardly the first time he had behaved in peculiar, even ridiculous, ways in the pursuit of Vile Gore.
(At this site, we began citing Williams’ peculiar work back in July 1999. Needless to say, the liberal world was asleep in the words at the time. We were sucking our thumbs and stroking our privates and displaying the world-class Dumb in which we persist to this day.)
That commenter said she never watched Brian Williams again. In closing, we want to show you what she missed if she turned off her set a little bit early that night.
She may have missed Bernie Sanders challenging Brian’s song! Late in the show, Sanders challenged the handsome anchor’s extremely hoary old framework.
Sanders was just a congressman then, but he knew how to push back. Meanwhile, give Brian credit! He fought back hard in defense of his wonderful friend:
SANDERS: I really am concerned about some of the language you used leading up to this discussion, the suggestion that it is un-American to criticize the president and we're supposed to be fighting for freedom.Let's attribute correctly! Suddenly, Brian was very concerned about fundamental fairness! He was willing to float “un-American” rather widely with respect to Gore. But he sought fairness for Rush!
This is not Iraq. It's not China, and I think the American people want a serious debate on this issue.
I think the position that Jim [McDermott] and I are advocating is what the vast majority of the people want. They want us to work with the United Nations. They are concerned about the impact of a unilateral effort on the war on terrorism, as Al Gore just said...
WILLIAMS: Congressman, Congressman Sanders, just to be fair, I was quoting, when I used the term “un-American,” a caller to Mr. Limbaugh's radio show accusing—
SANDERS: But who cares what—but who cares what Rush Limbaugh says?
WILLIAMS: Well, let's not attribute it to the broadcast. Let's attribute correctly.
Later, the handsome chaser of multiple millions thoughtfully told viewers this:
WILLIAMS: For the record, we tried to get Rush Limbaugh on tonight. He had another engagement, sent his regrets. But I confirm that was the sound of a trash can hitting the wall during his broadcast today, a rough day for Rush.Poor Rush! He had really had “a rough day,” all thanks to that speech by Vile Gore!
Brian has sung a lot of songs in his relentless climb to the top. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the ways he built his personal brand from (almost) the first days forward.
His misstatements concerning Ritz-Carlton-gate and Chinook-gate may not be that big a deal. But Brian has sung a lot of songs, as have some major TV stars who make their millions today as jumbled “liberal” journalists.
What kinds of “community” can we build with people who play it this way? Wealth and fame can attract the wrong crowd. We warned you about Williams long ago, much as we might warn you today about the branding of stars like Kristof.
Tomorrow: Just an unassuming blue-collar shlub who does his shopping at Target!