Excuse me while I get high for a moment or two.
I am contemplating a few of the sudden changes in the media hierarchy that occurred in the past week, beginning with the six-month forced exile of NBC anchorman Brian Williams.
The media had already been agonizing over Williams’ treatment for some days when the six-month sentence was handed down by NBC management. On the one hand, some argued, Williams had betrayed the trust that NBC had with its viewers. It was not enough to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on the air, you also needed to be arrow-straight away from the anchor desk. Embellishing the facts on David Letterman (even if that is merely an entertainment show) is still a betrayal of that trust. You’re no better than a middle-aged guy at the bar, recounting his high school sports exploits.
But more sympathetic people noted that Williams had not embellished any stories to gain an advantage for himself or his network. His exaggerated account of his helicopter ride over Iraq did not help him sell any books or draw any viewers to the next night’s show. By then it was old news. He conflated more then he inflated.
That’s in sharp contrast to other journalists, (mostly print journalists, I will admit) who have fabricated characters or events to gain placement for their work.
To me there is another point: Williams’ claim that he watched bodies float by as he was broadcasting from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was not much more of a fabrication than his and his network’s pronouncement that he was “reporting” from New Orleans. Williams standing in his thigh-high rubber waders in the flood waters was not necessary to gather the information he was reciting on-air. In that case it was mostly to make him look as connected as any other network anchor, all of whom were trying to catch up with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who was on the scene, challenging politicians, and reporting real news days before the rest of the TV world caught on.
David Carr, media critic of the New York Times (more about him later, as the TV newspeople might say), expressed it well: “We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it.
“That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer. We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and, above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.”
In the wake of the Williams revelations, I asked myself if I had ever walked into any truly dangerous situations as a reporter, and whether I would be tempted to tell the story differently today for some dramatic effect or personal gain.
There have been a few times I felt under some physical threat. One moment, which I recounted in this space several years ago, came in the summer of 1968 when I was a summer reporter for Time magazine. I had taken a taxi 50 blocks into Chicago’s west side to interview the organizers of a black youth group formed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King a few months earlier. “The interview didn’t go well,” as I wrote in a 2008 column for U.S. 1. “I was accused of profiting from the misfortunes of the ghetto. Physical threats were issued, and I was ordered to leave. No argument, I said, I would call a cab."
"A cab? Back then and probably now, no cabs ventured into the heart of that perceived darkness. So I began a 50-block, five-mile walk back to Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. The first mile or so I was eyes straight ahead, fearful of any potential cross look. Eventually I began to relax, and noticed the people on their stoops, relaxing after a hard day and trying to catch a cool breeze. Soon I began to hear greetings, and I began to return them. By the end of five miles I realized, as Barack Obama would have said, we were not black Americans or white Americans, we were just Americans trying to beat the heat on a sweltering summer day.”
A few years later, as a freelancer, I was trying to get an interview with the father of a young man involved in high profile murder case. The father was avoiding the media so I decided to go to his house and knock on the door. As I approached the house the man let a Doberman Pinscher out the front door. It charged me. Realizing I couldn’t run I just stood still. The dog stopped a few inches from me. My heart still pounding, I noticed that the little stubble of tail was moving back and forth. I took a gamble, slowly put my clenched fist out, and began petting it. At that point the man called the dog back into the house. I spoke to the man briefly. Still no comment. The next time, he snarled, he would have the dog attack me.
I have been frightened, but never punched or trampled. On many occasions, the most dangerous part of my reporting was driving home.
Which brings us to CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon, killed when the hired car in which he was riding slammed into another car on the West Side Highway in New York. The accident was a study in journalistic practices. Sunday’s 60 Minutes went ahead with the segment Simon had reported (with his daughter as the producer) on the search for vaccines to ward off Ebola and other modern-day plagues. The show promised a full Bob Simon tribute next Sunday, February 22.
I wondered why they didn’t present that segment last Sunday, the same day his final piece was aired. The news junkie part of my brain made me suspect that 60 Minutes did not want to delay its segment on Bradley Cooper, the “American Sniper” actor up for an Oscar in next week’s ceremony.
That was my thinking. The editors over at the New York Post, meanwhile, had another take on the correspondent’s death. The front page headlines in the Post pitched it as a scandal, more than a tragedy: “Bob Simon’s livery man is . . . DRIVER FROM HELL. License suspended 9 times. He failed at suicide attempt. Only one of his arms works.”
Simon, who in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War was captured along with his crew by Iraq and held for 40 days (now that’s a real war story, Brian), would have smiled at the Post’s description of the guy from the car service. He may have wondered if the headline would have been so harsh if the driver’s name had not been Abdul Reshad Fedahi. And he might have asked how it did in newsstand sales that day.
What can you say about Jon Stewart’s dramatic announcement of his departure from the Daily Show on the Comedy Channel. I can’t say much, since I have never seen a Jon Stewart show in its entirety — I have only seen clips of it rebroadcast on “real” news shows.
The night before Stewart’s retirement announcement, he turned his sights on Brian Williams and NBC, which had announced it was stepping up its investigation of the anchorman. The problem, Stewart noted, was not unique to Williams. The temptation to turn a news story into a war story is triggered by some “infotainment confusion syndrome” in which the “celebrity vortex” of an anchor’s brain takes control.
It was Stewart at his best, mocking the media’s solemn condemnations of Williams’ excesses about his Iraq War involvement and wondering how events might have changed “if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the war itself.”
Once again, David Carr summed up Stewart’s place in the press pantheon in a column that appeared the next morning in the Times. “For all the cynicism, Mr. Stewart is at heart a patriot and an idealist. Again and again, his indictment of politicians and media figures was less about what they were and more about what they failed to be . . . Mr. Stewart, in spite of his nightly beatdowns of the press, admires the profession. You got the feeling after a while that he had grown tired of pointing out the foibles of the press and the politicians he covered. His version of the news may have started as fake, but it was seeming more and more real all the time. Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”
Carr must have written that column Tuesday afternoon and evening. Somehow he then found time to make the round of evening news talk shows. I saw him on Rachel Maddow, I think (if you’re a true media junkie lots of it becomes a blur), commenting on Stewart’s announcement and the news that NBC had increased Williams’ sentence from a few days away to a six-month suspension.
That guy looks beat, I thought, as I watched Carr. That was Tuesday. Two days later Carr took another detour to moderate a panel discussion of “Citizenfour,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden. He got back to work, only to collapse in the newsroom.
I knew only a little about Carr himself by following his weekly column in the Times and — for a year or so — following his constant flow of Twitter posts. I was amazed at his ability to distill the value (or lack of value) of whatever piece of innovative media technology that happened to come his way. And I was impressed by his prodigious travel schedule for both his reporting and speaking.
Then I dropped Twitter like a bad habit. I never knew about Carr’s prior life as a crack addict (which he recounted in his 2008 memoir, “The Night of the Gun,”) until after his death, but I think I would appreciate it. Interwoven through this account of the media’s bad week have been references to the addictive nature of what we do. I have no idea how a crack addict feels after he satisfies his craving, but I know how I feel once a piece gets done and is sent off to the printing presses.
The New York Times account of Carr’s death reported that he had collapsed shortly before 9 p.m. and was pronounced dead sometime later at the hospital. The nearly 1,300-word story that would be on the front page of the paper on my front porch the next morning at around 6 a.m. also appeared in my E-mail inbox at exactly 10:45 p.m.
At that moment, in the newsroom of the New York Times, someone — otherwise very saddened by the news they were reporting — was nonetheless feeling some of that high.