How Media Bias Works 101. Instructor: Brian Williams
Brian Williams was a star at NBC, having achieved the pinnacle of broadcast journalism: nightly news anchor. Then it became known that he had "embellished" his resume, something that threatened to besmirch not only his own reputation for integrity, but that of NBC news itself, so, NBC's first, tentative reaction was to force him to leave “for a few days” in order to assess whether they could successfully mount a kind of reverse Caesar's Wife defense. If Caesar's wife had to not only be chaste, but give the appearance of being chaste, is it possible that the NBC news division can remain trusted, and trustworthy, even while its iconic figurehead gives the appearance of not being so? NBC''s success in this would hinge on whether they could draw a plausible distinction between William's personal integrity and his professional integrity. On the one hand, yes, he had proven himself to be the Artful Dodger of personal resume embellishment. That's personal. On the other hand, the important one, the professional one, he had an unimpeachable reputation, they argued, one that should not be sacrificed (along with the reputation of NBC news itself, for which he has been the ultra-visible spokesman for ten years) on the crucible an all-to-human impulse to engage in a little harmless grandstanding.
No, he shouldn't have done it, they will assert, and, yes, oh, yes, he promises never to do it again, but, I mean, really, we're talking about the universally esteemed Brian William's here and the venerated halls of NBC news itself. Let's get a little perspective, they counsel, shall we?
NBC got a lot of support for this position from within mainstream media circles, since they all have a lot to lose in cases like this, Tom Brokaw's hot-dogging remonstrations at the time notwithstanding. We heard over and over that, after all, Williams has a well-deserved, hard-earned reputation as a straight-shooting professional of the highest order. Many cohorts profess utter bewilderment that a man of such sterling, unimpeachable reputation on the professional side would feel compelled to jeopardize it by dishing up one chestnut after another on the other side, the side that doesn't really matter, the personal side. It's too out of character to be taken seriously. So, hey, back off, cut the guy a break, move on, nothing to see here, we all know memory plays tricks, because, well, it just does, am I right?
But wait. Is there... something else? Yes, he did have that vaunted reputation-- with those who share his liberal progressive worldview. It comes as a surprise, then, to many casual consumers of news, that amongst those who don't share that worldview he had long been considered to be one of the most biased, partisan, agenda-driven and therefore fundamentally dishonest of the mainstream broadcasters, especially because he so skillfully hid it behind a polished and professional yet easygoing and avuncular persona; and what makes this resume brouhaha so revealing, and in some respects so interesting, is that the ways Williams dealt with it-- the techniques employed in the service of scrambling to salvage his personal reputation-- were identical to the ones critics accuse him of deploying on a daily basis to craft a news presentation in such a way that it created, supported and sometimes promoted his own partisan worldview, while disguising itself as an objective newscast.
The technique he is so skilled at is simple: Take the facts associated with any given event and report the ones that support a self-serving narrative consistent with the preferred worldview. Leave out or ignore everything else. If that narrative comes under pressure, rehabilitate it with a carefully chosen half-truth. If it turns out that no re-jigging of the facts can produce an acceptable result-- then ignore the story altogether.
Example: Can't figure out how to spin the Jonathan Gruber “American stupidity” revelations into something other than what it is, a P/R disaster for Obamacare? No problem. Disregard it for forty days. If the story doesn't exist as a positive, it doesn't exist at all...
Here's another small, seemingly insignificant example, but it is a good one because it shows how subtle it can be in detail, probably of little import, until you consider that it is the type of sneaky editorializing that goes on day after day, newscast after newscast, aggregating over time into an edifice of unreliability:
On November 24th, 2015 Williams broke into regular broadcasting to portentously announce the results of the grand jury considerations in Ferguson, Mo. They didn't indict the police officer. Now, think about all the many ways to report that fact. You could say that the jury “decided” not to indict, or perhaps “chose” not to indict. Or maybe that a jury determined that an indictment was “not warranted”, or that the jury found that there wasn't enough evidence for an indictment. There are probably fifty ways to phrase the significant detail in a way that doesn't inject the viewpoint of the messenger into the delivery of the information and which, therefore conforms to the fundamental tenets of journalistic integrity.
Here is what Brian Williams said:
“The grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri has failed to come up with an indictment for the police officer in the shooting of the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.”
The grand jury “failed”?
How did they “fail”? They failed to deliver what Brian Williams has predetermined, in his well-oiled liberal progressive perspicacity, they should have, and, whether his audience notices it or not, his words are freighted with that implication.
It is well known that Williams built his reputation during Katrina, returning over and over, relentlessly. He's now in further trouble as a lot of his reporting about those days is also coming under scrutiny.
But that's not the real issue. First, was he going there because he had a genuine regard for the desperate souls he was covering? Let's be charitable and say, yes, in part. Was he also going because he realized it was a golden opportunity to, indeed, make his bones? Most certainly. Why else would he concoct these shameless fabrications about floating bodies and goodness knows what else that are now coming to light. But more importantly and more tellingly, he was drawn to Katrina because it was the perfect opportunity to relentlessly give vent to his liberal progressive detestation of the Bush administration.
No? Consider this: He claims that some people he spent the storm night with in the Supderdome later died. This fact is being challenged, but to what purpose would that particular tall story occur to him in the first place?
Here's Williams in an interview with a student from Fairfield University (h/t HotAir):
“I rode it out with the people in the Superdome. Not all of the people I was with lived. And they weren't killed by the hurricane. I think it's fair to say they were killed by the botched response to it.”
Fair to say? While he equivocates a bit later on, citing “probably a number of factors”, the truth is that he has essentially just accused George Bush of negligent homicide, something he is not only eager to do, but which he is apparently willing to make up facts to support.
The subtle, sub-textual smearing of his political opposites, while equally subtly and sub-textually promoting his own liberal progressive outlook, was his stock in trade and it had been for a very long time. If something works against that view, simply don't report it: Pretend it doesn't exist, or claim it is insignificant. Better yet, blame it on Bush. Or Sarah Palin. Or say it started with Reagan. Whatever. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Those who share his views, and the identical views of the vast majority of mainstream newscasters working today, either don't see it, or they like it. Those who don't share those views noticed Williams doing it constantly and found the depiction of him as a journalistic Mt. Rushmore to be preposterous and exasperating.
In the instance of his resume embellishment, he used that same basic playbook in the service of his personal narrative: He carefully selected a few supportable facts from a large group of them, and shaved them and molded them to sculpt a self-serving tale, one that would put him in a good light, that would be a useful building block in an even larger, ongoing, ever-improving “story” about himself, and dined out on it for years, embellishing things along the way as time and distance made it less and less likely that he would be called out on it. It's not that there was no truth to the story; it's that the story that emerged was so self-serving, so denuded of important, mitigating facts, that the resulting picture might have been of something, and it might be a distant cousin to the truth, but it wasn't the truth in any way a reasonable person would conceive of that to be.
But then, well, whoops.
So, then it became rehabilitation time, and it is there, in this follow-up “apology”, that we have something of a Rosetta Stone for his brand of partisan dishonesty. It is a sharp-edged example of exactly how it's done:
Here is a transcript of a good portion of his statement. There is one section in particular-- I'll highlight that section in bold-- that is an exemplar of the fundamental and most pervasive technique of this quintessential strain of left-leaning media bias, and it is therefore instructive and starkly revealing.
“I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was, instead, in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sand storm in the Iraq desert. This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect, and also, now, my apology.”
I showed this video to three people, including an ex-diplomat who had occasion to fly in helicopter formations, and asked them to describe for me, based upon this, what that formation might have looked like. With only slight differences, based upon the phrase, “I was, instead, in a following aircraft,” each had a mental picture of a tightly formed group of helicopters, with Williams' behind the one that got shot, in full view of it.
Each of them felt that while unlikely, it was at least minimally plausible that Williams, having seen the chopper in front of his being shot, could, in the hazy distance of time, mis-recollect it as having been his own. After all, “all” the planes immediately landed in dire circumstances, circled up, and endured, together, several days of harrowing danger and uncertainty.
We now know, of course, that what Williams meant by "following" -- but didn't disclose -- was that his plane was in a different formation at least 45 minutes away from the one that got shot.
“I was, instead, in a following aircraft,” is not an untruth, but without the further information that what he means by “a following aircraft” is an aircraft in no danger, not even within sight of the one that was shot, it is designed and intended to create a false image, a “reality”, that he knows full well is inaccurate, so it becomes a fact in the service of a lie. Just in case some reinforcement of the false impression was needed, he adds, “We all landed after the ground fire incident”, implying, once again, that they were a tightly knit group facing similar dangers. Leave out that, yes, he got on the ground-- but an hour after the others and in a different group, and the intended impression stands, reenforced.
Does anyone think for one second that this precise, precious formulation of Williams' words, this rhetorical sleight-of-hand was done without calculation, without a very specific intention to paint a picture that was at odds with a reality?
This is the white hot core engine of fundamentally dishonest media distortion, and it is not surprising that Williams is good at it in this instance, because he made a career of it elsewhere. Again: Take all the facts and put them on a table. Figure out a favorable story, or a way to discredit an unfavorable one, and then select the facts that support it, leaving everything else out. Don't lie, just select, and the rest will take care of itself.
He is a man well practiced at it, deft, agile and experienced. It's what he does. It's what he's always done. Not every time, not even often; but when necessary and whenever necessary.
Ernest Hemingway once said that the trick to writing a novel is knowing what to leave out.
So, too, with the co-opting of national media for the purpose of promoting one's personal worldview, with shameful insouciance, something Brian Williams had been doing for a long while. Take every major story you can think of, and understand that Williams (and his many other like-minded cohorts who defended him) have been applying this selfsame level of intrinsic dishonesty to all of them: Benghazi; The IRS scandal, The jimmied unemployment figures, impoverished children flooding across our borders, International fecklessness, Syria, Iran-- all of it, every one of them.
Anyone who had been getting their “news” from Brian Williams had been receiving a steady diet of the same kind of obfuscation, word parsing and selective fact-omission, to say nothing of complete story eradication, that he reflexively applied to his own narrative, his own “problem”. They had about as accurate a picture of what was really going on in the world, in politics, in the economy, in America-- as he would like you to have had about his own resume.
No-one should be surprised by his behavior in that episode. It is of a piece, and reminds me of the old frog and scorpion fable where the frog agrees to ferry the scorpion across the raging river so long as the scorpion promises not to sting him. Half way across, the scorpion stings the frog. “Now we're both going to die,” the frog says.
“I can't help it,” the scorpion says. “I'm a scorpion and that's what scorpions do.”
Should Brian Williams have been fired? Of course he should have, for that, sure, but more so, much more so, for standing as a paradigm of the kind of admired mainstream newscaster who garners that admiration by a maestro-like smoothness in orchestrating the forty-year-long descent of honest, truthful, and crucially important actual journalism into an abyss of untrustworthy liberal progressive evangelism camouflaged as reporting. I have no quarrel with those who subscribe to his agenda, but it is appalling to watch him and others like him nightly promote that agenda while making an absurd claim to objectivity, a claim made believable only by the skill with which the subterfuge is masked, and the unwillingness of his peers to expose it for what it is. If no one blows the whistle on the kind of thing he was trying to do when he said, “I was in a following aircraft”, it will stand, it will work, and in the end, piled on story after story, year after year, it will destroy us.
Brian Williams shouldn't have been fired because he lied, he should have been fired because he is poisonous.
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