The always amusing Brian Williams

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
(Photo Illustration by Yahoo News - AP/Getty Images/Everett Collection)

In the days leading up to NBC’s decision to suspend Brian Williams, my inbox kept dinging with emails from readers and friends — some of them names you’d recognize — asking me about the connection between Williams’ public humiliation and the events of the late 1980s.

This is not because I still wear parachute pants or listen to the Thompson Twins. (That I will neither confirm nor deny.) It’s because I published a book last fall about the brutal week in 1987 when Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions imploded amid allegations of adultery. In that moment, a tabloid-fueled explosion incinerated the public career of a man who had been the premier Democratic politician of his generation — and, I argued, marked the onset of a new kind of all-consuming scandal culture in our politics and our media.

I do see a connection between that moment and this one, but it’s not necessarily the one that a lot of readers have taken away.

In “All the Truth Is Out,” I described Hart’s undoing as “the first in a seemingly endless parade of exaggerated scandals and public floggings, the harbinger of an age when the threat of instant destruction would mute any thoughtful debate, when even the perception of some personal imperfection could obliterate, or at least eclipse, whatever else had accumulated in the public record.”

This is the argument that some readers seem to think echoes in the fate of Williams (whose actual fate may not be known for some time, no matter what the network says about his banishment lasting only six months). As they see it, Williams spent decades earning his position and reputation as a newsman, and all of it was washed away overnight by a single instance in which he misremembered events.

As with Hart, the entirety of Williams’ integrity has now been reduced to the worst moment of his public life. And most of the people I know in media or political circles seem to agree with my friend Joe Klein, who wrote in a post on Time.com: “I find the phenomenon of the schadenfreude circus that has erupted — yet again — to be overwrought and unnecessarily brutal.”

I certainly concur about the absurd self-righteousness of the modern scandal machine. I’m just not sure Williams is such a great test case for that. His misrepresentation wasn’t personal or trivial — it was directly related to his credibility as a journalist — and it’s tough to explain away, even if it shouldn’t destroy the man.

What resonates more for me in the case of Williams — or “BriWi,” as the tabloids have inexplicably taken to calling him — is the collision of celebrity, politics and media that first occurred during that week in 1987 (although we’d been building toward it for some time). Nearly three decades later, TV news and entertainment are almost impossible to separate, and probably no one’s embodied that cultural shift more comfortably than Williams.

The guy who saw this moment coming with astonishing clarity was Neil Postman. In 1985, Postman, a disciple of the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, published a remarkable book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” If you haven’t read it (and most people haven’t), you should.

Postman’s central thesis was that whatever media technology dominates a moment determines the way in which we relay and receive information. And since television, as the dominant medium of the late 20th century, was all about storytelling and visual delight, increasingly we could pay attention to information only if it came with appealing characters and riveting story arcs.

Here’s what Postman had to say about the evening anchor’s common refrain to “join us tomorrow” for another show: “We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this — the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials…”

Postman’s gloomy vision was manifest, two years after his book came out, in the first political scandal of the satellite age. The story of Hart and the blond model gripped the country not because it reflected so ominously on his public character, but because it had the narrative hook of a soap opera. Suddenly, the news had become something more like “Dallas.”

What Postman’s theory means for the modern anchor, of course, is that he can’t simply be a reader of headlines anymore, or even a witness to them. The anchor has to be a central character in the drama, so that all of us can feel invested in the story. He or she needs to star in the news.

This is why an anchor flies off to far-flung places with a safari vest (bought with a network clothing allowance) to anchor newscasts that could just as easily be presented from a studio. This is why David Muir, the anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” gets in on the joke when a couple of irreverent interviewers ask him to show off his “listening-but-concerned” anchor face, as if we all know these emotions are just part of the act.

And it’s why, I presume, Williams subtly altered the facts of his Iraq encounter, until he believed the altered truth himself. What he did was to inch himself ever closer to the center of the drama, which is where any main character needs to be. In the parlance of screenwriting, the hero needs “agency.”

What I never appreciated until this past week, in hearing various defenses of Williams from people who wouldn’t normally defend the media, is that he has evolved into something more than a mere anchor, or even a regular comic presence on “30 Rock” and “Late Night.” He is an all-purpose celebrity, genuinely liked by other celebrities. Anchoring is tangential.

I wonder if I was the only one who was jolted to read in a New York Times piece yesterday that Williams “commanded the respect accorded predecessors like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.” That could not have been written by anyone old enough to remember Cronkite. No modern TV anchor commands anything like that kind of respect, and it’s because we understand that today’s newsreaders are more like leading men.

In case you were wondering, this is the real reason that Jon Stewart’s announced departure from the Daily Show came as such a blow to the younger audience that admires him. It’s because there’s no artifice in his act; alone among anchors, Stewart flatly admits he’s an entertainer. When he shows you his listening face, he’s not pretending it’s real.

The Williams episode should be disquieting for all network execs. They can toss the disgraced anchor aside easily enough, but not so the hard questions about an industry that has undergone exactly the transformation that Postman foretold.

In its story yesterday, the Times reported that, when Jay Leno was retiring five years ago, Williams told NBC he was interested in making the transition to late-night comedy host. The network execs apparently thought this suggestion absurd, though reading this anecdote, I couldn’t for the life of me see why.

Williams understood the part of the modern anchor perfectly. It’s his bosses who ought to wonder what they’ve wrought.