Fake News Fallout: Brian Williams and American Humor


This just in: Brian Williams created the Internet. No, wait. That was Al Gore. It is all so confusing. One thing I am sure of, however, is that Brian Williams’s job as the anchor for NBC News is over. I hate for that to have happened, but I also must confess that I NEVER watched him on NBC News. Never. I do not watch any other nightly news program either. What for? I have the Internet, which Brian Williams created.

Brian Williams has been caught for being loose with the facts regarding his direct involvement with any number of stories. “Being loose with the facts” means that he has lied. He lied, though our culture prefers not to say such things when it comes to media figures and politicians. They misremember or somehow lose the details in the fog of war, fog of work, fog of aging, fog of hyper-saturated media consumption. Or, really, fog of ego.

Here is a fact: once a news correspondent, especially the anchor for a network news program, has opened him or herself up to ridicule for lying, it is over. Far more people than cared one way or another beforehand are ready to shout to the top of their lungs that television news must be preserved as a beacon of truth and dignity! The News must be preserved! Off with his head! We cannot tolerate such a challenge to the integrity of the television news media! One needs only to scan the memes created to mock his integrity to see how much damage has been done. Note this screenshot for a simple Google image search for “Brian Williams memes”:

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 9.29.38 AM

Here is where I should elaborate and write about how the integrity of television news media has never been pristine, but I will avoid that for two reasons: I don’t want to spend the time, and neither do you. So, let’s just settle that point by nodding to the best satire of the so-called integrity of network news and consider it “enough said” on this question: Network, the wonderful film released in 1976, which, I think, was directed by Brian Williams, who was, ironically, shot in the leg during production. That’s how I remember it, anyway. Who can be sure?

Here is the real problem regarding Brian Williams: he likes talking about himself. That is his fatal flaw. But he is also a major figure in television news who now provides a valuable symbol for how journalists–post Gonzo, post Watergate, post Cable, post Internet, and, alas, post Cronkite–can only “report” the news if they see themselves as a crucial “part “of the news. “Here I am doing something active and immersive, as I tell you what’s happening…” Journalists are tourists forever showing us not the story behind the story but the story behind them, seemingly all forced by competition and bottom-line economics to perform and be seen rather than to provide NEWS. The narrative I instead of the reporting eye. Ah, but that ship sailed long ago. Again, Network tells us all we need to know about that.

I like Brian Williams not because of anything he ever did on the NBC Nightly News but because I watched him on the Daily Show. And I liked him very much–what a guy! He was always funny and self-deprecating with a strong sense of humor that matched John Stewart’s style well–all the things you want in a guest on a fake news show. But his day job, so I have heard, requires him to be a truthmeister on a real news show, a program that covers all the important events in the world in twenty-one minutes or so every day! Williams was only one Monday through Friday. Still, very important stuff during the workweek and in between those commercials.

I am not alone in the relationship with Mr. Williams. A far greater number of people simply do not know him at all. Who the hell watches nightly news anyway? In reference to the potential audience and in reverence to history, the answer is simply “almost nobody.” No wonder he felt the need to jack up his street cred, eh? Tells us a story, Mr. Williams, about that time when you were shot at…..

Here is a link to one of Williams’s appearances on the Daily Show from June 3, 2013. He is very entertaining:

One of WiIliams’s 18 visits to the Daily Show

There are 18 videos available on the Daily Show website for Brian Williams appearances. Does that seem excessive to you? I, for one, would welcome more Paul Rudd guest slots, but I digress.

Here is the Daily Show take on the controversy.

The Daily Show Responds

In the bit, Stewart uses the phrase “infotainment confusion syndrome” to explain the neurological process that Brian Williams must have suffered through to create the resulting misinformation that has gotten him in such trouble. By “misinformation,” I mean “lie.” Of course, it is obvious the reason for the terrible mistake: Brian Williams was on the David Letterman Show when he made his first clear snafu–by that I mean when he was first caught in a lie–seeing a pattern here? It happened on Letterman. This is important for two reasons: one, it demonstrates again how Williams had become increasingly enamored over the years of being a celebrity rather than a news anchor–Ah, Icarus, too close to the bright lights!–and two, being on a competing late-night comedy program allowed Stewart and the Daily Show writers to tackle the issue without being too bound by a very close relationship with Williams (18 guest appearances!).

The result (Feb. 9, 2015) is yet again a fine piece of American humor that attacks Williams and the media at the same time. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post questions the integrity of the Daily Show’s satire, claiming that the segment was not aggressive enough toward Williams. Here is the link his complaint:

The Washington Post Complains about The Daily Show

I disagree, although my initial reaction was similar, especially when contrasted with how sharp and concise Larry Wilmore’s comments were on the Nightly Show. But upon multiple views, I assert that the Daily Show piece holds up well. Yes, it pivots to a broader attack on the media at large for a persistent and ongoing lack of integrity. That is what the Daily Show has always done well. Make no mistake about it, though, Stewart skewers Williams effectively, and if the writers chose to pivot to a bigger issue, they did so only after stating that what Williams had done was “masturbation.” That is hardly some sort of “rescue” of Brian Williams, as Wemple claims. I mean, dude, when you call someone out for masturbating, well, you’ve done some damage.

For a lasting image we can simply enjoy the moment of pure comic pleasure for viewers because it has such a wide array of applications: Stewart asserts that the truth always depends on which way the head is facing: when looking directly into the camera, it is news; when looking sideways to a talk show host, it is “pure bullshit.” It is an important distinction because it reveals that, in the end, there is no difference because it is television. News anchors are really always simply looking at a teleprompter, and the notion that the authority figure on the nightly news is always looking into our eyes is simply stagecraft. An illusion of the medium and, as such, pure bullshit. John Stewart knows that.

No matter what, Brian Williams is done as a news anchor for at least six months. By that, I mean forever. I remember when I was floating down the Mississippi River with Mark Twain, and together we came up with the following statement: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” To be honest, I came up with the phrase, and Twain simply agreed to it. In any case, the fact remains: laughter via mockery can discredit anyone and anything. Once we begin laughing at you, Mr. Williams, you cannot stand as a dignified news anchor. Whereas I have some misgivings about the full breadth of the statement that laughter can bring down any humbug (too many tyrants have withstood it), I am confident that it will bring down a talking head–even one always facing forward.

Williams himself, however, completed the tragic fall, as I see it, when he apologized for his misstatement (lie). Here is the apology the Brian Williams gave on the NBC Nightly News, and it is the moment that I decided not to feel any sadness regarding his situation:

The reason why I am no longer even remotely sympathetic to his plight is that he offered his apology/explanation/justification by couching the entire issue around a noble rationale. He begins with this clause, “In an effort the honor and thank a veteran…..” –wow. What could possibly be important about the rest of the statement? Whatever mistake he made, he did so while trying to honor and thank a veteran! What a guy!

What a putz.

There is no getting around this fact: Williams’s performance is a genuine piece of rhetorical bullshit. I should add that he gives that statement while facing the camera directly and without flinching.

Goodbye, Brian Williams, newsman. I had been thinking that you could have a future in American humor because of your wit, but, based on that statement, I now know where your future resides because of your ego–politics.

4 responses

  1. Bingo. Brilliant uptake and takedown. Too bad it’s in this tiny venue.

  2. […] etc.) and some prefer winging it on whatever subject seems topical to them (i.e. Brian Williams, Hal Holbrook, television shows, risky humor, or Charlie Hebdo…and here and here).  In the […]

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