4 Terrible Lessons the Brian Williams Scandal Taught Us
You've probably already heard that intensely likeable news anchor and perpetual Guy Smiley impersonator Brian Williams has spent the last 12 years telling a whopper about his coverage of the Iraq war. Like that kid who insisted that at his old school he was able to swing AROUND the cross bar on the swingset, you just had to be there to see him do it, Williams has done the journalistic equivalent with a war anecdote.
The story went like this: In 2003, Williams was covering the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when something went wrong. In the first version of the story, he told The Nightly News that the helicopter in front of him in his entourage was shot down by a rocket-launched grenade.
Ten years later, the story was different -- he was IN the helicopter that was shot down. On Jan. 30, Williams retold the new and improved version of his date with a grenade at a tribute to a veteran. The next day this happened:
Yes, a helicopter was shot down on March 24, 2003, but Williams was about an hour away, safe and sound in a totally different helicopter, according to the guys who were actually there. Long story short (too late): Williams is suspended from the news for six salary-free months while he gets his shit together.
It turns out that we don't mind middle-aged men inserting themselves in tall tales if they're your grandpa and they're talking about fishing, but not if they're associated with the news in any way. But we as news consumers probably shouldn't get too high on our high-horses over the sudden fall of a network news anchor. Why? Because we SUCK at every part of news consumption. Getting mad at Williams in a world of Gawkers is like getting mad at a McRib in a pile of horsemeat. Your outrage is misplaced.
Like a colon after said McRib.
The Internet Has Made Us Terrible Consumers of News
The reason Williams is wearing a journalistic cone of shame right now is that he comes from a tradition of men and women who were given the solemn duty of hand-holding Americans through the world's news every night. In the '80s, you could list the number of people with that job on one and a half hands. It was such a highly esteemed position that to this day if you Google "the most trusted man in America," you get a picture of Walter Cronkite, a newscaster who's been dead for almost six years.
It was a mustache a nation could trust.
Being trusted is a network newsperson's whole gig, Fox News excluded. Not so with Internet news providers! When it comes to the Internet, it's better to be fast than right, and retractions rarely happen. We got an apology from Williams because the expectations are a mile high, like his eyebrows.
Meanwhile, Page Six, The Blaze, Gawker, and Fox News latched on to the Williams story by reporting that veteran newscaster Tom Brokaw wanted Williams' head on a platter. It was cool because they cited an "inside source." The "outside source," named "Tom Brokaw," went through the trouble of issuing a statement essentially saying, "Nope! I never asked for Williams' dismissal!" a day after the headlines. So, obviously, Page Six, The Blaze, Gawker, and Fox News backed up and retracted inflammatory and unsubstantiated rumors, right?
"A-pol-lo-guise? Is- is that how you say that word?"
As of six days later, no they did not. It doesn't matter anymore. Fast beats right, and retractions are imaginary monsters that exist only on TV.
Sorry, Brian Williams. You chose to exist in the wrong news universe.
We Can't Trust Ourselves to Choose What's Important
Look at your Facebook "trending" feed. Look at it. It's awful. It's the trashiest news on the planet -- celebrity engagements, baby bumps, stories about actresses making public appearances with faces that don't look exactly like your favorite version of their faces from 1994, etc. And if that's not your Facebook newsfeed, WTF Facebook? Did you assign me the "Most Superficial" algorithm and that's why my news is terrible? THANKS.
It turns out Facebook isn't a dummy. We click junk. Which is why print media looks different from our trending stories. On the day that most of us were tapping the Williams stories, actual newspapers looked like this:
Print media was 100 percent focused on Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American aid worker and ISIS hostage who was killed in an airstrike. They didn't waste their time with Jon Stewart's announcement that he was leaving The Daily Show, because since when is a TV show staff change front-page news? It's a big deal, sure, but not bigger than the death of an American hostage, right? RIGHT, GUYS? Google news trends disagreed. Those are the Google trend searches showing that we are five times more interested in Stewart and Williams than an executed U.S. hostage.
"Kayla? Is that the meme girl? No? OK, whatever."
We're starting to realize the difference between what a newspaper does and what a tabloid does: Newspapers tell you what you should know, and tabloids tell you what you want to know.
We Need Better Standards for Internet News
We keep talking about the lesson people can learn from what happened, and everyone has a different opinion. Salon thinks the lesson is in the dangers of machismo and needing to be a hero; Newsweek says his downfall was pride, which isn't as cool-sounding as machismo but will do in a pinch. But no one is really asking what the lesson the media itself can learn from this. Hey, Internet Media: Why didn't you figure out and report that Williams was a fibber 12 years ago? All of the lies were there for the montaging. Why did it take a soldier on a freakin' Facebook comment to reveal the truth behind the 2003 story? HOW LAZY ARE YOU, INTERNET?
"Depends. Are cats and/or Beyonces involved?"
Actually, I can answer that one. The Internet wouldn't know a retraction or correction if bit them in the ass. According to a media organization that tracks errors, "Three-quarters of the 28 news outlets we reviewed provide no corrections-reporting link of any kind on their home or article pages. Even media organizations that show signs of working to handle corrections carefully fall down in various ways -- and lots of others don't look like they're even trying."
So, to recap: A previously respected journalist was caught in a lie. Bad form all around. However, our main sources of news, on the Internet, are running a rumor-based shitshow that we can barely get worked up about to just not click their stupid stories.
We're Comically Smug About How Uninformed We Are
Throughout this whole Williams thing, Gawker has tastefully played the part of the schoolyard bully who's been waiting his whole life for you to not make it to the bathroom on time. Like ... hovering. Salivating. POUNCING at the chance to call you a pants-pooper.
We're guessing the journalism tag is meant to be ironic?
Gawker is our biggest star of B.S. News. They reported obviously Photoshopped images as real, falsely claimed a woman had sex with a dolphin by purposefully changing the news quote, and made a hero out of a guy lying about bullying a kid.
We somehow have it in us that, because the Internet has more information, we're more informed. But that works only if the Internet holds itself to the same standards that we used to. Instead, we're actually just as misinformed as we used to be:
In 2007, fewer people were able to name their governor, vice president, and the president of Russia than people questioned in 1989. Despite the deluge of information provided by the World Wide Web, we're still pretty much dummies. Don't mention that out loud, because we think we're more informed by the Internet and that we're living during the pinnacle of human brainpower. Just don't ask us to name all nine justices of the Supreme Court.
That's what apps are for.
David's on Twitter and loves every second of it.