Lessons from Lyin’ Brian: It’s Time to Reinvent TV News

By Buying into the Archaic Show-Business Anchor Format, We’re Only Fooling Ourselves


Let me make it clear I’m not defending Brian Williams. I’m just pointing out that his downfall is as much our fault as his.

Williams essentially got in lockstep with the program imposed by NBC, which relentlessly trumpeted the notion that he was a larger-than-life figure who had been there and done that, was omnipotent and omnipresent, and thus somehow infused credibility into the words he read from a TelePrompTer.

There’s no question that pneumatically inflating your persona by lying about your derring-do on the job is an automatic disqualification for a network anchorman, regardless of the intensity of the pressure to live up to the image confected by your bosses’ promotion machine.

But think about the underlying issue and our tacit complicity: When we sit down to watch today’s incarnation of TV news, aren’t we engaged in a certain suspension of disbelief right from the moment we’re galvanized by the sweeping theme music? Do we really believe that graying hair and a resonant voice impart credibility? Are we actually buying the conceit that the video snippet harvested by inserting and quickly extracting the combination anchor/star into a war zone somehow creates authenticity?

Suspension of disbelief, of course, is what show business is all about. And the current model for TV news evolved from a time when the medium had to adopt entertainment values in order to seamlessly co-exist with the rest of the broadcast day.

The golden-throated “announcer” descended from masters of ceremonies on stage and in early radio.

TV-news formats were created to quantify the amount and nature of captivating video to match the visual appeal of entertainment programming. The same formats mandated selection of stories featuring danger and conflict because they aped the engrossing and familiar structure of most drama.

Highly sophisticated and rigorously researched formats resulted in virtually identical pairings of bantering middle-aged men and young blonds stamped out as anchor pairs in city after city. Anchors were tested for likeability by playing tapes of their performance to audiences who were instructed to twist dials if the anchors made then feel warm and fuzzy.

Still, though, we were given a pretty good product. We didn’t get a nightly civics lesson, but we did get some important news packaged by talented people who generally did their best to balance the integrity of the product with the unflinching demand to attract the eyeballs of a mass, undifferentiated audience.

But that mass audience is disappearing. The audience is fragmenting among logarithmically multiplying destinations for those eyeballs.

Network television ratings have officially fallen off the cliff, and in response networks have ratcheted up by doing more of what worked in the past: trying to sell the cult of celebrity.

Today, though, the best guess among media prognosticators is that the strategy for success is to concede that you will reach a smaller audience but seek a devoted and profitable demographic and offer a leaner, more efficient product.

With that assumption in mind, I have an immodest proposal: Let’s regroup and reinvent the product. Instead of investing extravagant amounts of cash into promoting the packaged, promoted, and scientifically certified warm-and-fuzzy anchor – in hopes of saving an enterprise that’s on life-support anyway — why not hire an extra dozen competent if less-fuzzy reporters?

Instead of the D-Day scale mobilization necessary to parachute the star into the hot spot de jour, why not plow the money back into re-establishing the overseas bureaus that have been eliminated in corporate cost-cutting massacres?

If we absolutely insist on an attractive person mouthing the news, why not follow the lead of many British broadcasters and hire talented but essentially interchangeable personnel we unabashedly identify as news readers or news presenters – shifting the focus to the product instead of the personality?

I realize that everyone who fancies themselves a news aficionado advocates at least some of the above, but now is the time such an approach could actually work. It may have to.

Wouldn’t a smaller, but still substantial, audience seek out the type of product that network news organizations, with their vast non-star talent pool and distinguished institutional memory, can provide?

After all, news audiences can be catnip to advertisers. Although they tend to skew older than the coveted youthful demographics, news viewers tend to be attentive and thus attractive targets for advertisers. (News audiences are usually watching the program rather than having it on as background chatter.) Also, news audiences also are typically more affluent that viewers for other types of programming.

What do we have to lose given the inevitable fragmentation of mass audiences? Would it be such a risk for networks to exploit the true value of TV news – a window on the world that brings us reality and context — rather than to package the news as a constellation of mass entertainment revolving around a few evening stars?

The deal would have to work both ways, of course. We, as a collective audience, would have to give up the comfort of personality-driven journalism and the familiar warmth of news presented in a show-business frame.

It won’t be easy, because we like the mythology that Brian Williams tried too hard to create. Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin nailed it all the way back in 1962 in a prescient book titled The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

We hardly dare face our bewilderment about the gap between reality and the ginned-up media experience, he agued, “because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

Carl Hausman, Ph.D., is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. He is the author of several books about journalism and media, including Lies We Live By: Defeating Doubletalk and Deception in Advertising, Politics, and the Media.

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Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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