Brian Williams epitomizes the perils of celebrity journalism

TV news still longs for the good old days

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Hoisted by his own petard. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. A taste of his own medicine. He flew too close to the sun.

These are the bromides we apply to cases like Brain Williams. Williams worked hard to become a big deal celebrity journalist and now he is suffering the fate of so many celebrities. A world that he conquered, nourished and flourished may now devour him.

I have no opinion or strong feelings about whether Williams will be ousted or whether he ought to be. My Care-O-Meter is quite low.

But I do have a strong view about celebrity journalism: I am against it and believe it hurts the profession and the business. We fetishize The Anchor. That is silly and anachronistic. The whole celebrity news syndrome puts TV news more and more out of step with what news consumers need and want.

TV Newsworld still longs for the good old days of three-part monopolies, mass captive audiences and automatic authority. That nostalgia perpetuates the endless, fruitless quest for another Walter Cronkite. There will never be another Walter Cronkite for reasons too obvious to bother listing. And that is a good thing.

Walter Cronkite, furthermore, was not a celebrity. Yes, he was famous and well liked. But he did not swap gags with Buddy Hackett and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. He didn’t do cameos on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  He didn’t send Parade magazine pictures of his weekend sailing excursions and new pets. He didn’t cultivate celebrity fame for the sake of celebrity fame – and money.

American culture became hungrier for glamor and more gullible about marketing. The next generation of anchors – Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings – fed the fame machinery more promiscuously, too varying degrees.  The network morning shows became personality shows. Barbara Walters pushed other envelopes. Cable news arrived and tried to make their anchors famous, too.

When high quality, on-demand news arrived on the Internet and young people tuned out television news, the networks and cables responded by doubling-down on celebrity. Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer, George Stephanopoulos and Williams took promotion, idolatry and the cult of personality to new levels. And ratings continued on their inexorable, but slow decline. When cable channels see ratings dip, they shuffle hosts.

There are different models, some in their own backyards. 60 Minutes would be Exhibit A. The show has always been an ensemble act. Yes, Lesley Stahl and Mike Wallace became celebrities after years of primetime success. But the current cast is relatively unknown and low-key by the standards of Couric, Sawyer and O’Reilly. The audiences remain large and so do the profits.

The big news programs on NPR, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, each have three hosts in rotation.  Promotion for the shows is not personality based. And audiences remain loyal and large.

BBC News is famous for rejecting the cult of personality. The BBC’s marquee television broadcasts are BBC News at Six and BBC News at Ten.  One cannot discover from the shows’ Web sites that the “presenter” (the British word for anchor) is Huw Edwards.That would be an unthinkable, capital offense in America.

Aspects of celebrity journalism have dribbled down the pay scale chain of journalism to print reporters, podcasters, bloggers and producers. All of us are supposed to cultivate our bylines and our social media networks. We are supposed to be self-promoters. For many of us “of a certain age,” like me, that feels hypocritical and awkward.

But at least it has a purpose. Consumers get their news less by going to various “destinations” (a newspaper, show or a site) and more through various, personalized feeds – search, Facebook, Twitter, a set of mobile apps and aggregation sites. The respectful way to treat this audience is to distribute work through those channels.

ABC News replaced Diane Sawyer with David Muir, so perhaps they are realizing at last the limits of celebrity. But Anchor Worship still governs the newscasts.They still go through the charade of putting The Anchor next to every Big Story. It doesn’t matter if it adds nothing to the depth, detail and authority of coverage; that is what a Big Story is supposed to look like.

Journalists and news organization have precisely the same challenge marshaling credibility and trust as public servants and government. More celebrity and slicker marketing is a proven loser.

I would have hoped that Brian Williams would understand that. After all, he and I were in Hitler’s bunker in the very last minutes.

[Also by Dick Meyer: ‘Science deniers’ believe what they believe]

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