The Journalistically Irresponsible Brian Williams and the NBC Sanitized News
— Richard E. Vatz
I think I have rarely seen such a sanitized news report as Brian Williams’ in the May 11, 2009 NBC Nightly News segment on The White House Correspondents Association Dinner held over the weekend.
The critical facts were these: Comedian Wanda Sykes said of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh that in view of his stated hope that President Barack Obama fail, he was guilty of “treason” and “I hope his [Limbaugh’s] kidneys fail — how about that?” She further speculated that “maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just so strung out on OxyContin, he missed his flight.”
The remarks were outrageous, tasteless and said in a style of aggressive hostility, not good-natured toughness, as were President Obama’s humorous remarks concerning former Vice President Dick Cheney. What was President Obama’s reaction to Sykes’ inappropriate ugliness? According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, “Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said he hadn’t talked specifically with Mr. Obama about the joke. But he had a ready answer at the daily press briefing on Monday: ‘I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection, rather than comedy…There’s no doubt that 9/11 is part of that.‘ ”
Conservative talk show hosts and callers were appalled, making the observation that were the remarks made by Republicans about Democrats, the latter would have been apoplectic.
Mr. Williams’ news report of the dinner was lighthearted throughout, beginning with this description: “It’s really kind of a prom for adults…feelings were hurt, umbrage was taken, excuses were issued so it must have been a successful event.”
Ms. Sykes according to Williams: she “really stirred things up with her attack on Rush Limbaugh.”
That was the entirety of his report of the Sykes controversy. He simply implied that there were no serious issues regarding the comportment of Ms. Sykes.
If I were trying to make a case for Mr. Williams, it would be this: his pseudo-journalistic piece on the Correspondents Dinner was dwarfed by his infamous and journalistically ethically irresponsible decision to air the self-serving and self-ennobling tapes in 2007 of Seung-Hui Cho, who committed the mass murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech and sent his murderous valediction to the network he correctly judged would immediately show it. Oh, I’m sorry – Williams, NBC News President Steve Capus et al. “spent hours” deciding whether to show it.
Sometimes mild-mannered, well-spoken and reputedly privately hilarious newsmen need to be scrutinized for professionalism.
The Soviet Union-era newspaper Izvestia could not have cleaned up the scandalous behavior any better.
There must be better models for Brian Williams.
Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University