I visited the Newseum this week for the first time. If you haven’t been, the Newseum is a must-see in Washington, DC. It’s a compilation of news coverage since before the Lincoln assassination. It’s well put together, and includes every major news event you remember, as well as some you might not recall.
I spent most of two days wandering around the halls, which pay homage, in large part, to some broadcast legends. Peter Jennings is there, Tom Brokaw too. The pioneers at CNN, television’s first 24-hour news channel are prominently featured. And in light of recent events, I was surprised to see one familiar face in several places as well.
Brian Williams, the disgraced anchor who is currently on-leave from NBC after admitting he fabricated a story about being in an aircraft in Iraq that was shot at, was a big part of several Newseum exhibits. It occurs to me that in a building dedicated to the history of news coverage, good AND bad, Williams may become an exhibit himself one day soon.
After making the steep vertical jump from reporting to anchoring, it seems Williams got a little caught up in the “Hollywood” aspect of the Nightly News. He forgot that he was behind the anchor desk to tell the story, not be IN it. His colleagues who were embedded with troops in Iraq were getting a piece of the real action, and Williams perhaps feeling like he was stuck in the anchor chair. It was a big desk, and to many in the business that would have been excitement enough, but it seems Williams wanted to have a bit of BOTH worlds. He began to embellish stories from the news events where NBC sent the Nightly News. We know now that Williams was not on a chopper that took enemy fire, and that bodies didn’t float by WIlliams’ hotel in New Orleans. There are other alleged tall tales, some we may never even know about, but the bottom line is, If Williams hadn’t wanted to BE the story, he never would have felt the need to stretch the truth.
Brian Williams seems to be a symptom of a much bigger problem at a network that used to win in nearly all the news categories. For years, with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric out front, NBC had by far the best morning show in the business. TODAY was news-based, and Lauer and Couric were as good at interviewing world leaders and getting answers to the tough questions as they were sharing a personal story about themselves or their kids from the weekend. But they knew where the line between personal and professional was drawn and they didn’t cross it. They knew that the news was the star of the show and they were just there to deliver it. I don’t watch TODAY much anymore and I was reminded of why the other day when the random cast of the show (Savannah Guthrie, Carson Daly, Willie Geist, Tamron Hall) all gathered around “special correspondent” Jenna Bush Hager to celebrate her pregnancy news. Didn’t we JUST do that with Savannah Guthrie? Ugh. The show devotes entire segments to reading tweets and Facebook posts in the fictional “orange room” for reasons I cannot fathom Matt Lauer and Natalie Morales are the only ones on set who still get the premise that the show is about news and talk, not social media and social lives, and they hardly get two minutes of the show. Come to think of it, they’re probably thrilled they don’t have to appear on set for the entire whole show. Matt looks like he’d rather be working the birthday party beat at Chuck E. Cheese than sitting through some of those forced-fun segments. It’s dreadful to watch.
I heard Charles Kuralt speak once, while I was a Journalism student at ASU. He told a story that will always stick with me. It was about a small town TV news broadcast, during which a young local reporter sweetly told the story of the first day of kindergarten. It was full of the pictures you would expect from such a piece, tearful parents, excited kids, and lots of tricycles. (Kuralt often watched local newscasts while traveling the country for his “On the Road” show to see what the young talent was up to. He was impressed with the storytelling skills of this young reporter until the end, at which point the six footer got on one of the young student’s tricycles, and signed off, pedaling awkwardly away from the camera. Kuralt’s point was that the story was complete, and in fact, quite cute WITHOUT the reporter inserting himself so far into it. His point to us young journalists? “Don’t ride the tricycle.” The story is never about you.
Somehow, Brian Williams forgot that. The TODAY show is forgetting too. When reporters forget that they are NOT the story, they cease to be able to tell it properly. Viewers may say they want more “personality” from their news people, but personality can never turn into celebrity. The results can be fatal to a career.
I can’t wait to see the Brian Williams exhibit when I visit the Newseum next time. I bet he’s on a tricycle.