If you’ve been following the Brian Williams story over the past few days, you know that the formerly respected NBC News anchor was caught in a lie recently: a rather large one, in which he has repeatedly talked about being in a U.S. Army helicopter when it got shot down during the Iraq war in 2003, something that apparently never happened. This has sparked much debate in media circles about whether Williams has lost — or deserves to lose — his place at the peak of American journalism. But he lost that place a long time ago.
When Williams took over as NBC News anchor in 2004, he was widely seen as one of the modern successors to legendary TV newsman Walter Cronkite, and in fact by 2010 some were arguing that Williams was the country’s premier TV anchor, and had earned the trust of millions. Marketwatch columnist Jon Friedman said that despite the rise of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle, Williams remained relevant and was the “Walter Cronkite of the 21st century.”
In reality, of course, the NBC anchor and other lesser-known TV personalities had already lost a lot of their god-like image even by 2010, and they have lost even more since. Not because of personal peccadilloes or false memories like the one Williams is accused of manufacturing, but because there are so many other sources of real-time news available now — just as we no longer have to rely on one or two newspapers, we no longer have to look to a single anchorman to be the “voice of the people” or to filter news events for us.
Anchormen are everywhere
I tried to make the same point when Walt Mossberg left the Wall Street Journal in order to continue running what became Re/code with Kara Swisher (which switched from being owned by the WSJ to being owned by Comcast). “Who is going to be “the next Walt Mossberg?” people asked. The short answer is no one — or rather, everyone.
If I want to find out what’s really happening in Iraq or anywhere else, I and many others are going to look to dozens or even hundreds of different news sources, including the videos and photos and other social-media reports of people who are directly involved — or at least more involved than a TV anchorman who flies into the country and stays at the Hilton, so he can do a news report in front of a palm tree with a flak jacket on.
Venrock partner and media investor David Pakman made a related point in a recent blog post entitled “Brian Williams and Abundance Vs. Scarcity in Media,” about the Williams’ scandal and how it might affect NBC: In effect, he said, NBC is being hoisted by its own petard, because it put so much of its faith (and money) into a single individual as the face of its news brand. That kind of approach might have made sense when news and media were scarce, he says — in other words, before the internet came along — but it no longer works at a time when trusted news and information sources are everywhere.
“NBC chose, in a scarcity-based media world, to build their entire news brand around him. And now he has significantly tarnished this brand. This will have a real economic effect on NBC as a result. Brands built in the age of scarcity take significant risks when they use celebrities (or any one individual) to act as a proxy for their products.”
Maybe Williams will come out of this incident looking a bit more humble — a bit more human, a little more flawed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, while many criticize the internet and the social web for their flaws when it comes to accurate reporting of the news, you could argue we were actually worse off when a single individual like Brian Williams or Walter Cronkite was seen as infallible. And our trust in the New York Times certainly seemed misplaced at one point when it misled us about the cause of the Iraq war.