DECONSTRUCTING BRIAN WILLIAMS
Brian Williams was regarded as the perfect TV anchor
Yet now he is the constant butt of ridicule and rancor.
Our trust in his reporting fell to practically zero
When he misremembered episodes to make him seem a hero
Media satirists are at their most acerbic when their subject is a media celebrity. So it was inevitable that there would be an explosion of mockery when, in his recounting of events during the Iraq war, the NBC news anchor recalled being in a plane that was forced down by enemy fire, only to be publicly contradicted by a crew member who recalled that Williams had landed in a following plane and had walked up about an hour later asking what had happened. Williams apologized. admitted that he had exaggerated his peril, and was suspended for six months.
But this was just the beginning of his humiliation. The memes of “Historical Events That The NBC Anchor Misremembers Being At” sprang up all over the Internet, showing Williams broadcasting live from the moon, sitting next to Kennedy in the assassination car, even usurping Moses’ role in carrying down God’s tablets.
Andy Borowitz reported that NBC’S fact-checking department had verified several harrowing events reported by Williams. They included his ordering an emergency landing of a helicopter when he discovered there was no bottled water on board; nearly being burned to a crisp when he fell asleep on a tanning bed; and being trapped in a malfunctioning elevator and “being stuck talking to my tax attorney for eleven minutes before I was rescued.”
And, in the unkindest cut of all, Bill Maher joked that Williams had told “such a blatant departure from the truth” that he was offered a job at Fox News.
All of this pointed to a question repeatedly raised in this blog: Which is the reality and which is the satire? The satirical magazine National Report declared that “links appearing on Facebook from NBC News will bear a ‘SATIRE’ tag for the foreseeable future.” Others pointed to Williams’ frequent appearances on late night comedy shows, including a visit to the David Letterman program on which he had told his Iraq fable. Maureen Dowd noted that “as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher were doing more serious stuff, the supposedly serious guys were doing more performing.”
So here we have satire operating at three levels. First, the work of professional satirists, increasingly regarded as firmly linked to the real world. Second, the product of professional news anchors, increasingly seen as moving farther and farther from the sturdy principles of Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite toward the frothy realms of entertainment. And third there is reality itself, much of it more absurd than the work of satirists -- or even of news anchors.