By Greg Smith
Why is there any surprise that a television ‘journalist’ paid $10 million per year has problems with embellishing the facts?
Journalism is among if not the lowest-paid line of white-collar work there is. Ask any Joe Shlub print reporter how they feel about having to listen to teachers, who work less and are paid a lot more, complain about how much they make.
While higher education is pretty much a requirement to get hired, it doesn’t take a college degree to be a good journalist. More than anything it takes common sense, some tenacity and a willingness to work; work really hard. Any journalist I ever knew would have been pretty darn happy to make even $60,000 a year. To make half a million a year would be too good to be true. So how are network anchors so far above the rest of their field that Brian Williams makes $10 million annually? In itself that should be a red flag.
Brian Williams and other network anchors, strictly speaking, are not even journalists. They are actors paid to provide the right face, voice inflection, gravitas and likability to generate viewership. Their clothes, hair color, glasses or lack thereof and every other detail of their public persona are a calculation. An expensive suit their normal costume; on the road a Brooks Brother safari jacket lends just the right feel. For them reporting involves a set, be it at a New York City corporate high rise or a third-world, debris-filled side street cloaked in smoke and awash in distant gunfire.
Does anyone remember Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer-prize winner who became the face of CNN by reporting from a Bagdad hotel during the 1991 Gulf War? He, at least while the cameras were rolling, walked the walk and talked the talk of the consummate globe-trotting journalist who would brave anything to bring us the facts. In 1998 CNN ran a report which said U.S. forces had used chemical weapons, sarin gas, in 1970 while trying to kill Americans in Laos who had defected during the Vietnam War. Arnett reported the 18-minute story with all the convincing flair of a reporter.
Then fate pulled back the curtain on Arnett’s professional costume party. The story turned out to have a few important holes and as criticism mounted against the network, Arnett and producers involved, Arnett’s response was he was just the face of the story, not the journalist. He wasn’t accountable for errors or omissions.
“I’m a company guy,” said Arnett to the Washington Post describing his place in the brouhaha. “You want me to read a script, I’ll read it.”
So we have costumes, sets and a script. Shouldn’t be any surprise about the occasional foray into fiction.
To be fair to Brian Williams, I have “misremembered” things, and I know others have as well. Talk to someone with whom you shared an experience 10 years ago and see if you both remember the pertinent facts the same. Williams’s story about his helicopter taking fire is a little bigger deal and is more problematic. From the descriptions he didn’t misremember his own experience, he inserted himself into someone else’s.
Why Williams would consciously or unconsciously create a personal story should be obvious. His rather substantial livelihood and celebrity are based on a public perception. He is no worse than the aging actress on her third set of plastic surgeries or the has been climate-activist singer whose life and livelihood use 500 times more carbon-based energy than the rest of us, all in a bid to remain relevant.
The perplexing question is how did a guy who makes $10 million a year reading stories researched and written by others ever get a level of journalistic credibility in the first place? Considering his job could be done with a $100 piece of software, there should be no surprise that he has taken some license to keep himself relevant.
Greg Smith is a freelance writer and political consultant who lives in Bantam, CT. His blog is found at www.betterfatthanfascist.com