Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Anchorness: A cultural take on the Anchor persona of Brian Williams

People are talking about Brian Williams again. In case you hadn't heard, he was the most respected news anchor in America who, until sometime earlier this year.  He was forced to leave with tail between legs after he lied about being in a helicopter that went down while investigating a story in Iraq during the war in 2003. It turns out he was with a group of helicopters and another heli in the group went down. But over the course of several years, this story morphed into how his own helicopter was shot from the sky, depicting him as a heroic journalist who paid a personal price in the war. And the story caught up with him. He was outed by soldiers no less.  Now he's back - this time at MSNBC. But he's still a media image, which is different than a real person. That's the case I made below, when the scandal first broke.

After hearing and reading many news stories and comments on Brian Williams, all to some degree with the tone of how he should either  a) be given a pass (based on the science of memory) or b) fed to the wolves (lying is an offense to our shared morality), here is one take I haven’t read. As much as people would like to believe that we live in the world of Walter Cronkite, we don’t live in the world of Walter Cronkite anymore. We live in a setting where the political party who can put the most advantageous frame on some potentially central reality is considered the one telling the truth. Often, “the truth” indeed coincides with that frame, other times not so much. Think of it like a Venn Diagram with the central circle as some event and then more or less overlapping circles with different versions of the event, some of those circles representing lies, and others merely different perspectives based on many factors. Yes, on many grounds — in many areas of our lives, we still believe there are central truths — whether or not a statement is clearly a fact — the preeminence of the central circle.

Yet when we are dealing with the media and politics, the reporting of particular situations is a construction. We might expect that the truth exists somewhere in that construction, but that may or may not be the case. When we see a US president, don’t we already know that there are advisors like David Axelrod or Karl Rove that will advise for or against real action in the world based on how it will appear to the public? Representations are often more important than actual realities, but of course are strongest when there is a close fit. And those representations, like the Brian Williams anchor brand, interact with reality in ways that can be ruinous —for  example the presentation of a “good” American politician (male, married, children, dog, God-fearing) is ruined when the reality of his sexual exchanges with strangers in a truckstop bathroom are revealed- a reality versus the brand.  

Actually, the central reality that I’m proposing is that Brian Williams is a media brand, so much more than a nameless journalist. The actual Brian Williams overlaps with the brand Brian Williams but they are separate things, in the same way the character Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, a parody of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, was a character qualitatively different from the real Stephen Colbert. The camps of those who are, to put it simplistically- on BW’s side, or against him, both condemn or excuse him based on his actual trustworthiness. Result? a) He is not trustworthy because he intentionally lied or b) His ability to recall was compromised by natural function of the human brain. These positions both confuse the anchor brand BW – a media image- with the living, breathing human BW. The distinction between two brands like Brian Williams and Stephen Colbert (of Comedy Central) is rather flimsy even when the intent is different: the former results from the conscious media presentation of a crafted version of reality while the latter is a construction for satirical effect. Brian Williams the anchor was already going way off brand in recent years with forays into comedic late-night appearances. It was deleterious to insert himself too deeply into the coverage, merging subject and object, and the brand imploded.

The brand BW is now tarnished in whatever way you believe that happened. But he is also a real person — and real people lie, forget, reconstruct events intentionally or otherwise, and remember things differently, sometimes radically so. The old guard, like Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite, and the new guard of media journalism both have to deal with upholding the boundaries of trustworthiness and respectability and an unwavering sense of moral certitude, anchorness if you will. But they are actually talking about two separate things, a media brand versus a human being. Of course that brand -the anchor Brian Williams- collides with reality in the real BW’s pocket.

A previous version of this story was  originally posted at Medium:

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