It didn’t shock me to hear that Brian Williams has been ousted as anchor of NBC’s Nightly News.
His admitted embellishing of the truth about his Iraq war experience (and apparently other news items) cost him the credibility that is a journalist’s only currency. A number of media commentators expressed doubt that Williams would return to the anchor chair, and their predictions have proved accurate.
In a commentary post and accompanying video on Williams’ significant demotion, Howard Kurtz of Fox News said “the rank and file of his own news division was vehemently opposed” to Williams’ return. In addition to their resentment at the anchor’s sullying of the NBC News brand, which was certainly understandable, Kurtz added that Williams had also distanced himself from many of his fellow NBC journalists and became “increasingly aloof.”
How did that happen? Perhaps he became aloof by becoming more than a journalist — he became a celebrity.
Williams appeared on many programs outside the news sphere, including The Daily Show, numerous late-night shows as well as Saturday Night Live, which he guest-hosted in 2007. This mixing of entertainment and news personas may be necessary in this social media-driven environment in order to boost ratings for regular news broadcasts, particularly among the 18-49 year-old adult demographic treasured by advertisers. And perhaps it is working; the Pew Center notes that network news viewership rose in 2014, a significant achievement in an era of more news options – not always reliable – that today’s mobile environment offers. It made sense to engage younger viewers in new ways. It is good marketing strategy. But is it good for journalism?
Network anchors have their Facebook pages, their Twitter feeds, their Instagram accounts and their YouTube channels. But at some point, does that social media presence and their multiple appearances on entertainment programs make them more like entertainers than journalists? On the one hand, anchors and other journalists use social media just like journalists of a past era used the telephone and person-to-person contact — to reach out to sources, track down information, and gain perspective on breaking events from eyewitnesses who are on scene far earlier than any journalist. Stories break on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube frequently, and by using social media, journalists stay on top of the news.
But when those accounts inevitably become self-promotion channels as well, the perspective might easily shift and journalists become celebrities. Perhaps journalists should leave the promotional part to their network or media outlet’s marketing department. Journalists carry the power to change society. Edward R. Murrow ended McCarthyism with his reporting. Walter Cronkite changed the American public’s view of the Vietnam War with his battlefield chronicles and subsequent commentary. Can today’s journalists claim a similar power? Through social media, they can reach a wider audience. But can they retain that sense of authority that good journalists must possess?
In wrapping up his commentary, Kurtz observed that the remaining major broadcast network anchors were “workmanlike” journalists replacing celebrities: Lester Holt instead of Williams, David Muir in place of Diane Sawyer and Scott Pelley succeeding Katie Couric.
Has the “anchor as celebrity” phenomenon run its course? Maybe that’s a good thing.