Sunday, February 08, 2015

TV: NBC's Biggest Diva: Little Miss Brian Williams

Bitter rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford only completed one film together, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and, though things were semi-calm on the set, all hell broke loose after.  There were minor issues -- like Bette quoting the studio calling them "old broads" which Joan lodged an objection to.  But the real problem came when the Academy Awards were announced.


Three time nominee and one time winner Joan Crawford expected to be nominated for Best Actress.  As did nine time nominee and two time winner Bette Davis.

When the nominations were announced in early 1963, Bette got a tenth nomination and Joan got nothing.  The other four nominees were Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker), Katharine Hepburn (Long Day's Journey Into Night), Geraldine Page (Sweet Bird of Youth) and Less Remick (Days of Wine and Roses).  Joan immediately contacted Bancroft and Page offering to accept on their behalf.  Bette, confident she'd have her third Oscar, watched in dismay as Crawford walked on stage and collected the award on behalf of Anne Bancroft.

And then the rivalry was kicked up another notch as Bette Davis began telling people that Joan refused to hand over the Academy Award to Anne Bancroft.

As the years passed, she added details to the story and could soon be seen on TV repeating the story to Johnny Carson and countless others while never missing an opportunity to tell the story of how Joan Crawford refused to hand the Oscar over to Anne Bancroft for over a year after the ceremony, of how Joan traveled around on the Pepsi jet for 12 months refusing to give Anne her award.

The awards were handed out April 8, 1963 and Joan presented Anne (in New York starring on Broadway in Mother Courage) with the award May 6, 1963.

But that never stopped Bette from repeating the tale.  Even when confronted with evidence that her story of Joan refusing to hand over the Oscar for a year was false, Bette continued to tell the story and insist that it told better that way and it was a star's prerogative to 'embroider' a story so it would be more entertaining.

Though  her actions wouldn't pass a fact check, they are in keeping with diva behavior.

Which begs the question: When was Brian Williams christened a diva?

We kind of thought, being the anchor of NBC Nightly News and the managing editor, he didn't qualify for diva theatrics.  In fact, NBC finally bounced David Gregory from Meet The Press due to many reasons including diva-like behavior.

Maybe it should have been a wake up call?

For decades, Good Morning America was seen as a joke by CBS and NBC's news departments.  They chuckled over how the 'news' program, back then, fell under ABC's entertainment division and not news division.

And with people like failed actor David Hartman and struggling actress Nancy Dussault (she'd finally find fame in the 80s playing Ted Knight's wife on Too Close For Comfort) acting as hosts, Good Morning America was feather light on journalism credentials.

But while GMA spent the ensuing decades beefing up their journalistic cred, NBC used the ensuing decades to tear down their own.

There is MSNBC.

From the start, the network has been an embarrassment.  At one point, in 2003, things were so bad that MicroSoft was actively attempting to pull the "MS" off from MSNBC.  That's when Michael Savage was among the extremists destroying the network.  The radio host fancied himself an 'anchor' and part of a 'news' department.

The stooges on MSNBC now swing the other way but they're just as ridiculous when they claim to be journalists and reporters.  They're talk show hosts.

Talk shows are the most cheaply made public affairs program.

The cheap aspect is why NBC attempted, in 2009,  to do a talk show for their last hour of prime time, Monday through Friday and it was a disaster.

MSNBC is a disaster as well -- in far too many ways to detail.

But at its most basic, it's a disaster because it was a pro-Republican channel for much of Bully Boy Bush's occupation of the White House and it is a Democratic Party propaganda outfit today.

Network news is not supposed to be biased.

More importantly, it's supposed to avoid even the perception of bias.

MSNBC has destroyed that for NBC News.

So when NBC News makes a mistake (such as a poor edit on a 9-11 call),  the perception is that it wasn't an accidental error or an error by one person but part of a blanket of bias in the entire network.

MSNBC is a huge problem for NBC News -- and that's before you get to the issue of the ratings.

And, no surprise, this is what many have focused on in their discussion of Brian Williams moment last week where he had to apologize for lying -- and couldn't even get the apology right.

Travis J. Tritten (Stars and Stripes) explained what happened:

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.
Williams repeated the claim Friday during NBC’s coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for a retired soldier that had provided ground security for the grounded helicopters, a game to which Williams accompanied him.

Immediately, the uninformed and the suck ups attempted to rescue liar Brian Williams.

He just forgot!

He just misremembered!

He just  . . lied.

You can spin it any way you want but he lied.

He lied about it and he'd lied for years and, yes, his employers at NBC, had told him to stop lying.

Brian Steinberg (Variety) cut through the nonsense:

 What makes Williams’ admission worse, according to one person familiar with the situation, is that he had been counseled in the past by senior NBC News executives to stop telling the story in public. The advice, this person said, was not heeded.  One person familiar with current NBC News operations disputed that information.
Williams’ version of the story has never been allowed in NBC News programs, according to three people familiar with the unit. Indeed, in a March 2003 episode of “Dateline,” Williams described the helicopter trip accurately. “On the ground, we learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” he said while narrating a report.

Get it?

He lied.

He was told by NBC to stop repeating the story.

He refused to do so.


Because he's not a journalist.

He's a celebrity.

And that's as much NBC's fault as it is Williams' fault.

We've explained this and warned about it repeatedly here.

Most recently, we did so last April with "TV: The slow suicide of NBC News."

As we noted then:

But while MSNBC has tarnished NBC News, the NBC News staff has destroyed their own image.
Is that a news term?
Because Andrea Mitchell can be seen every three months, across the country, on TV, snarling "Slut!" at a woman.
It wasn't funny when it aired.
It's 30 Rock.  Andrea learns Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) has had sex and mocks her and derides her with, "Slut!"
The show's now in syndication with most TV stations choosing to air the show five times a week with two episodes each day.  That means every 13 weeks, the show is back to the Andrea Mitchell "Slut!" episode.
Andrea Mitchell wasn't the first news anchor or reporter to appear on a sitcom.  We believe Walter Cronkite was the first, doing an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974 while he was also the host of the CBS Evening News  (February 9, 1974, "Ted Baxter Meets Walter Cronkite," written by Ed. Weinberger).  But Walter didn't call anyone a "slut."
On that episode of 30 Rock ("When It Rains, It Pours," written by Robert Carlock), the news of Liz's alleged affair is spread by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.
He appears on nine episodes in all, playing a vain network anchor named Brian Williams who spreads gossip.  Not only does he note Liz's alleged affair in the previously noted episode, in "!Que Sorpresa!" (written by Matt Hubbard), Brian Williams spreads gossip to Liz's staff -- the staff she supervises -- that she's pregnant. In both cases, Brian Williams doesn't just spread gossip, he spreads bad gossip -- in both cases, what he repeats is untrue. 
As a fleeting moment on NBC prime time, it may not be noticed.  Truth was, 30 Rock was watched by few people on NBC.  It's reaching many more viewers in syndication.  And every thirteen weeks, they see Brian Williams playing himself as a gossip and idiot.  (In one of the episodes, he plays a 70s broadcaster who is deeply sexist but not named Brian Williams.)  They also see him doing the "slow jams" with Jimmy Fallon.
Neither his 'comedy' 'acting' nor his 'slow jams' have a damn thing to do with news (nor did his Family Guy voice over) but it does have a lot to do with lowering the NBC News brand.   

In the last years, nothing Brian Williams has done has improved his standing as a journalist.

There have been no big scoops.

There have been no brave stands.

He didn't, for example, publicly declare solidarity with White House persecuted reporter James Risen.

All he's done is grab a paycheck for pretending to be a journalist when not doing acting gigs or slow jams on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

NBC asked for this, they begged for this moment.

They took a questionable journalist and made him an anchor.

That's not new.  We pointed that out in 2005:

NBC knew his "commitment" to the news before Tom Brokaw retired, it was on display in an interview with Jay Leno where Williams opined that, as a father, he felt a responsibility to airing apparent kid friendly stories. In another time, he would have been informed that the network was looking for a newsperson, not a parent. In our present time, it was cause to "oooh" and "aaawe" over Williams disowning a committment to the news. Williams is the younger, slightly more attractive Brit Hume. Translation, he's not a news person.

They made a person with a shaky relationship to journalism into an anchor.

Instead of working to brandish his image as a reporter or give him some credibility, they unleashed him into the world of celebrity where he was applauded for doing sitcom appearances, for voicing animated cartoons and for 'rapping' on The Tonight Show.

When he is caught lying, the public doesn't rush to his side.

That his apology was self-serving and a lie matters less to NBC than the fact that people don't trust him. Variety commissioned a poll on Williams.  Shelli Weinstein reports, "Seventy percent  did not describe Williams’ apology as sincere, with 60% believing that the anchor attempted to minimize the significance of his fabricated story in his apology."  And how many thought he should be fired or quit as anchor?


If he'd ever been seen as a journalist and not a joker, an entertainer, maybe some people would be standing by him now.

And if he weren't White Anglo, maybe he'd already been fired by now?

That's an avenue Richard Prince (The Root) explores:

"You know...Patricia Smith, Jayson Blair & Janet Cooke all got fired for being lying reporters. What will happen to Brian Williams? What do you think?" one African American Facebook poster asked, referring to three black journalists who left the profession after their fabrications were discovered.

Another veteran black journalist wrote, "I know that my career would have been permanently snuffed, crushed and disfigured had I engaged in ANY fabrication of the news. Not so for Brian Williams, who predictably won't be severely punished..."

Will he be punished?

It depends upon whether NBC decides he's a journalist or a celebrity.

If he's a journalist, he's out of a job.

He has lied repeatedly about his 'near miss' in Iraq.  He has lied even when NBC execs told him to stop telling that lie.

He can't be trusted behind the anchor's desk.

We also happen to believe Richard Prince has a very strong point that, were Williams African-American, he already would have been fired.

(Of course, were he African-American, he wouldn't have gotten the job to begin with because the only African-American news anchor or co-anchor of network evening news -- Monday through Friday -- is Gwen Ifill of PBS' The NewsHour.  The first and, so far, the last.)

But if he's just a celebrity, NBC may decide to keep him on and he can continue telling the lie about Iraq, expanding it, adding to it the way Bette Davis did.

Who knows, in the future, Brian Williams might even be immortalized in song.  Only instead of someone singing "she's got Bette Davis' eyes," as Kim Carnes did in the Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon song, they'll be singing, "He's got Brian Williams' lies."

Whatever NBC decides, the poll Variety conducted makes clear the public already knows where they stand: Brian Williams needs to go.  And  that's the sort of career tragedy that helps stir the melodrama and what's a diva's life story without a string of tragedies to wallow in?

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