NEW YORK, N.Y. – In 1974, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite made a cameo appearance as himself on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
That was a very big deal. Big-time TV newsmen, especially Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) didn’t put their credibility on the line by crossing over into make-believe. And especially not at CBS News, where Cronkite, despite his own eagerness to accept this invitation from a hit sitcom, had to gain approval from the news division’s president, a legendary stickler for journalistic purity.
By contrast, in the modern world of TV news where Brian Williams rose and fell, almost anything goes.
But not quite anything, to judge from NBC’s decision, announced Thursday, to remove Williams permanently from the “Nightly News” anchor desk for straying into make-believe while on the talk-show circuit. (Though banned from “Nightly” for inflating his journalism exploits, he still is deemed sufficiently trustworthy to anchor breaking news and special reports on MSNBC, demonstrating that, at NBC News, the definition of “trustworthy” is fluid).
Unlike in Cronkite’s day, TV journalists today routinely turn up on comedies and dramas (Netflix’s political thriller “House of Cards” is a favourite gathering place) as well as on talk shows, where they heartily promote themselves and their respective news brands. And no one was more active, and adept, at this than Williams, a go-to guy for talk shows including “Late Show with David Letterman,” ”The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” for comedies including “Family Guy” and “30 Rock,” for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” plus “Saturday Night Live,” where, as guest host, he zestfully embraced his inner ham.
Purists might have complained that Williams’ busy sideline as a silver-tongued TV personality gnawed away at his newsman gravitas. But it greatly enhanced his likeability quotient while arguably winning him new viewers as the chief truth-teller for NBC News, which, in turn, could boast “OUR anchor is more charming than THEIRS!”
For a long time, trust — so vital in the news equation — was a given with Williams. Certainly it was from his standpoint: He placed trust in the hands of his audience, who were trusted to draw a clear distinction, even as it eroded, between Serious Brian and Brian Lite. Unfortunately, this was a distinction Williams lost sight of. The anchor who reported on wars for NBC News got caught fudging his own war stories on “Late Show” and elsewhere.
When Briangate erupted in February, “Daily Show” host Stewart defined the trap ensnaring Williams as the “Infotainment Confusion Syndrome,” a brain misfire that occurs, he said, “when the ‘celebrity cortex’ gets its wires crossed with the ‘medula anchor-dala.'”
A shrewd diagnosis. After work, away from the anchor desk, Williams let his ego get “the better” of him, he admitted to Matt Lauer during Friday’s “Today” interview. “To put myself in a better light, to appear better than I was, I said things that were wrong. I told stories that were wrong.”
For a long time, Williams gleamed bright as an all-purpose TV star, working both sides of the street as a serious newsman and a witty raconteur. Then, almost overnight, the public’s trust in him hit a wall. According to one survey, he was the 23rdmost trustworthy person in the country before his deceptions became known. Then his ranking plummeted to 835. The man who cracked jokes on talk shows was suddenly a punch line.
Now, as he faces second-string status with his August return, it’s anyone’s guess if Williams can rid himself of what he called “a bad urge inside me,” if he can ever be taken seriously again.
“Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” said Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, on Thursday.
Perhaps more importantly, NBC has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust. Lester Holt, in his new role as what the network hopefully bills as “permanent anchor,” must prove himself immune to Infotainment Confusion Syndrome. He must keep in mind that, with the current trust-challenged state of TV journalism, reporting the news is all that’s required. He must, if asked, resist the urge to slow-jam the news with Fallon.
Fortunately, Holt is on the right track after four months temping at “Nightly News” and now taking over for the man who couldn’t resist.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore