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The Perils Of Celebrity Journalism

NBC News
In February 10, 2015, Williams was suspended for six months without pay from the Nightly News for "misrepresenting events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003."

We live in an age that worships celebrity; a time where personalities such as Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton can be “famous for being famous.” So-called “reality” TV shows blur the line between the scripted and the genuine, and as a society we seem increasingly comfortable with a very elastic definition of “real.”  

This fascination with celebrity has, perhaps not surprisingly, enveloped news reporting, as well. And while there have long been famous journalists – muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair were household names in the early 1900s for their exposés of corruption and abuse – the modern obsession with the journalist as media star has brought with it new complications.

This was recently on display in the brouhaha over Brian Williams, the currently-suspended anchor of the NBC Nightly News. After he was found to have misrepresented his role in a 2003 incident during the Iraq War, he was suspended from the Nightly News for six months.

Celebrity is all about, "Hey, look at me!" Journalism, on the other hand, is about, "Hey, look at that!"

Williams came up through the ranks as a local TV reporter at affiliate stations, eventually moving to the network. He took the anchor’s chair at NBC Nightly News the year Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and the program’s coverage of the event and the aftermath was widely praised. The show won top awards for its coverage, including a Peabody Award, broadcast journalism’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. In his time at the helm of the Nightly News, Williams has won a dozen Emmys as well as other major awards for his reporting. In 2007, Time magazine named Williams one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”.

I stress the accolades to make the point that Brian Williams is no mere Ted Baxter, an empty suit with a ruggedly handsome face and sonorous voice that reads the news into a camera. Williams has been a quality journalist for more than three decades and earned his status as a trusted voice in news. Which is what gives his downfall a certain quality of Greek tragedy.

For years now, the commercial TV networks have increasingly seen their news shows as just one more entertainment product. And that extends to the personality in the big chair. The job of top newsman at one of the major networks demands that you be more than merely a reporter. You’re expected to be a reassuring presence during tragedy, a voice of authority in uncertain times. You’re also expected to be a regular guy with a great sense of humor, someone folks want to invite into their homes each evening.

So on any given week, you were as likely to find Brian Williams swapping wisecracks with Jon Stewart or slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as you were to see him on the Nightly News. Williams was a frequent guest of David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s, and often appeared on the sitcom 30 Rock as a caricatured version of himself. Under his most recent contract, Williams makes $10 million a year.

It’s got to be hard to maintain your connection to your journalistic mission when you routinely hobnob with movie and TV stars, when you’re invited to all the glitziest balls, when you’re paid that kind of money, when you see your own face everywhere you turn.

In short, when you become a celebrity first and a journalist second.

I don’t know why Brian Williams exaggerated the danger he faced during his coverage in Iraq. Or why he made any of a number of other statements about things he said he witnessed that have since been called into question. Memories can be amazingly malleable, and perhaps over the years, he may have come to believe he did those things and saw those events.

But I do know that America’s celebrity culture is antithetical to real journalism. Celebrity is all about, “Hey, look at me!” Journalism, on the other hand, is about, “Hey, look at that!”

There is a place for first-person reporting. Especially in broadcast news, taking your audience into the story with you can be a compelling technique. But any time you as a journalist become the story, the story usually suffers. And that’s doing a disservice to the public who looks to us to tell them things they want to know – and sometimes things they need to know, whether they want to or not.

Broadcast news allows us as journalists to make a personal connection to the public that print reporters rarely get to make. I can’t tell you how many times a listener has told me with a sly smile, “I wake up with you every morning!” That connection gives us an opening to do journalism that has a visceral impact that print can seldom touch. That’s one big reason I left newspapers and went to public radio twenty years ago. People invite me into their homes and allow me to explain important things to them; how cool is that?

Given the reality of public radio salaries, I don’t need to worry about getting seduced by an embossed invitation to Kimye’s next soiree. But Brian Williams’ spectacular crash is both an indictment of our celebrity obsession and a warning to journalists that our job is too important to let it become about us.

CORRECTION: A reference to Ted Knight was corrected to Ted Baxter. Ted Baxter was the vain, shallow news anchor character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show on TV. Ted Knight was the actor who played Ted Baxter. 

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for nearly 20 years. After covering the environment in Seattle, then reporting on European issues from France, he’s returned to JPR, turning his talents to covering the stories that are important to the people of this very special region.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.