One of the most trusted figures in the news was recently outed for a lie on the Iraq war — a single occurrence that is quite instructive on the deplorable state of the American media system.
Last week, “Stars and Stripes” — a U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored media-outlet — broke the story that, for nearly eight years, managing editor of the NBC Nightly News Brian Williams had been perpetuating the following lie: while covering the Iraq war in 2003, a helicopter he claimed to be in was hit by enemy fire and forced to land in an open desert. But in fact, Williams was on a separate helicopter nearly an hour behind the one hit.
This particular lie reflects poorly on Williams’ ethics as an individual journalist—but, more importantly, it is also emblematic of the larger media apparatus of which he is a part.
In recent decades, the U.S. media system has denigrated to a public relations machine for elites—a machine that uses the grease of sensationalism to crank-out its content. Specifically, in the early 90s, corporate media heads began to treat news as a profitable pursuit rather than a public good. And since news has to “sell,” it has to be attention-grabbing. Thus, instead of presenting the substantive, nuanced information associated with issues, news producers are compelled to oversimplify and emphasize conflict and drama.
Further, because the news product has to be cheap, journalists are always in search of material that can be efficiently molded into a story. And powerful elites — politicians, business spokesmen and interest-group insiders — are always producing this type of material in the form of speeches, press releases or issues stances to position themselves favorably in the eye of the public. But this slew of material not only provides journalists with “news stories;” the credentials that come with it also vapidly affirm their credibility.
Journalists are thus pressed to form cozy relationships with elites, and it is, indeed, a beneficial affair for all involved — except for the average citizen, that is. Specifically, journalists become passive, waiting for information to be fed to them from their “expert” sources rather than adversarial and investigative. And as elites become the trigger of most news, journalists also report from their perspectives. Coverage is presented in a way that raises questions about how particular events and phenomena will affect elites and their careers, not how they will impact the public.
Williams’ account, and the circumstances that surround it, demonstrates these phenomena quite well. Specifically, rather than exploring the far-reaching implications of the war — like the 500,000 people that have been killed — we get Williams, a “respected” nightly news host, telling his drama-packed battle story. And we must not forget the backdrop of this epic fable: Williams traveling with a “Military News Analyst” and retired general, Wayne Downing, to receive the “official, inside” story from the “expert” — all part of a report on President Bush’s strategy in Iraq.
Ultimately, a functioning democracy requires a healthy press, and a press’s health can be gauged by how well it holds powerful people accountable and provides the citizenry with substantive current affairs information. But instead of watchdogs, we have lap-mutts, following “important” people around and healing at their beck and call. And instead of public informers, we have entertainers spinning us tales of war.
What is at stake with this type of reporting is more than a single career — but our democracy. This is, after all, the same type of reporting that allowed the Bush administration to dupe the nation into war — indeed, the same type of reporting that placed Williams in Iraq in the first place.