Part 4—Following the money: We’re willing to give the press corps credit. They’ve finally found the miscreant they misidentified, long ago, as Candidate Gore.
Just as they always suspected, a persistent, rather strange dissembler was right there in their midst! But it wasn’t Candidate Gore, whose “lies” they had to invent.
It seems that the persistent dissembler may have been NBC’s Brian Williams! Williams seems to have told a long succession of whoppers down through the years, in the psychologically puzzling way he and his colleagues spent two years attributing to Gore.
What will turn out to be true about Williams’ various claims about Hurricane Katrina? We’ll wait to see what NBC or other journalists learn and report.
That said, a bit of interest creeps into the stew thanks to Douglas Brinkley’s 2006 book, The Great Deluge. In the best-selling book, Brinkley seems to take many of Williams’ somewhat jumbled recitations and claims at face value.
Was Williams really consumed by “dysentery” and “delirium” for several days and nights during Katrina, as “armed gangs” were “brandishing guns and terrorizing guests” inside his hotel? That’s what it says in Brinkley’s book, whose index offers no other citation for “dysentery” in its full 768 pages.
It will be interesting to see how well Brinkley’s book holds up. Brinkley at least sidestepped the implausible story in which Williams seemed to say that he miraculously discovered the hole in the Superdome’s roof—though needless to say, only after taking a terrible fall.
Here's how Williams told that story in his October 2005 Katrina documentary.For transcript and tape, click here:
WILLIAMS (10/27/05): The storm winds started in the morning [of August 29, 2005].Al Gore said he discovered the hole in the Superdome roof!
When they lowered the huge corrugated steel doors at the back of the Superdome, we were inside with everybody else, locked inside for the duration of the storm. It was dark. The power was out early. There was no circulating air. There was only the food we brought.
I slipped on an awful combination of detergent, motor oil, and water on the slick cement ramps going down to the actual field, the turf.
I went down hard. And I was lying on the Astroturf on my back. Just gonna take a breather for a second. And I looked up. I saw a pinhole in the roof of the Superdome.
And that pinhole, lo and behold, grew larger and larger.
Sorry, crackers! Despite all the stories you heard in the past, it was really a major journalist who told that rather implausible tale about the semi-miraculous way he managed to make an important discovery while flat on his back on that ramp!
Even flat on his back, while just taking a breather, Williams kept breaking the news! At least, that’s the way he told the story in his documentary. The film aired first on the Sundance Channel, then later on NBC.
Whatever! Williams’ many stories do tend to seem rather strange. They suggest that something may be slightly amiss inside the rich newsman’s head.
If that’s the case, we hope six months will help Williams get himself back under command. Meanwhile, we'll suggest you might draw a conclusion from this stew of apparent tales:
Follow the money! More precisely, citizens should be very concerned when “journalists” get paid millions of dollars per year by big corporate “news organizations.”
When journalists—or popular historians like Brinkley—get turned into their own “brands.”
People, follow the money! It attracts the wrong people into news. And it may tend to corrupt such people once they land their big jobs.
People will do a lot of things to score more than $10 million per year—or to score the $7 million Rachel Maddow is said to be paid. Meanwhile, along with all that cash, you're gifted with all that fame!
How might these “brand names” be affected? At The New Yorker, Ken Auletta offered these thoughts in a recent post, Brian Williams and the God Complex:
AULETTA (2/8/15): [W]hile the spotlight is on Williams’s transgressions, a word about the complicity of NBC and the other networks’ marketing machines: The networks have a stake in promoting their anchors as God-like figures. By showing them in war zones, with Obama or Putin, buffeted by hurricanes, and comforting victims, they are telling viewers that their anchors are truth-tellers who have been everywhere and seen everything and have experience you can trust...NBC had a stake in promoting Brian Williams as all-knowing, just as a promo ad for the ABC anchor David Muir that I saw today portrayed the lightly experienced forty-year-old as worldly...Did Williams believe his “fantastic stories?” Before we try to answer that question, we’ll wait to learn which stories may have been true.
In addition to the marketing campaigns, something else happens that often induces anchors to think of themselves as God. Each of them is seen in roughly eight to ten million homes nightly. They are seen by many more people, and more frequently, than any movie star. To walk down a street with an anchor is to be stunned both by how many people recognize him and how many viewers call out to him about specific stories. There’s a respectful familiarity that is different from the awe surrounding Hollywood celebrities. The anchor is treated as the citizen’s trusted guide to the news. As a result, he can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God. It’s a short distance from there to telling fantastic stories—and maybe actually believing them.
But wealth and fame—and fawning profiles by lesser scribes—can easily lead to that God complex. And this syndrome can grip “liberal” journalists too, even if we think we share their wondrous political values.
We’ve thought about Nicholas Kristof this week as we’ve watched the storms around Williams. We’ve also thought about Rachel Maddow.
We’ve remembered the story she always told about the way she could never own a TV set because, if she owned a TV set, she’d never do anything else.
That story, a bit of a humblebrag, helped create a fey brand. Today, a giant flat-screen TV hangs in front of Maddow’s large hot tub, as you can see in this swish photo spread from New York magazine.
There’s nothing “wrong” with owning a TV—but wealth and fame can be corrupting. We suspect they affect our “liberal” stars too.
If that’s true, would such a thing be good for progressive interests?
Tomorrow: Breaking! Kristof in Haiti