The Times’s weirdly Putin-free first take on the NBC forum

Illustration (cc) by Michail Kirkov.
Illustration (cc) by Michail Kirkov.

Here we go again. A week after the New York Times completely rewrote a story that initially portrayed Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico and subsequent hate-rally speech on immigration as a turn toward a softer, more statesmanlike candidate, the paper’s lead story omitted the biggest news coming out of Wednesday night’s NBC News “Commander-in-Chief” forum.

The story, like last week’s, was by Patrick Healy. And it contained not a single mention of Vladimir Putin, whom Trump praised fulsomely—even suggesting that he was a more impressive leader than President Obama. Here is the original article, posted on Wednesday night.

By this morning, Healy’s story had been updated to include a mention of Putin—in the fifth paragraph. Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s three-reporter effort led with this:

Donald Trump defended his admiration for Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at a forum here Wednesday focused on national security issues, even suggesting that Putin is more worthy of his praise than President Obama.

That’s known as finding the lede and running with it. (Although I didn’t save the Post‘s first take on Wednesday night, I know it mentioned Putin prominently.) By the way, the Post also led the print edition with that story, under the headline “Trump Defends Praise for Putin.” The Times: “Candidates Flex Muscles During TV Forum.”

The forum itself was inexpertly moderated by Matt Lauer, who grilled Hillary Clinton with predictable questions about her damn emails while repeatedly letting Trump off the hook. Clinton, speaking first, pointed out that Trump has lied repeatedly about his initial support for the war in Iraq. Good thing—because when Trump lied again, Lauer sat there and said nothing.

As Dylan Byers writes at CNN.com:

Perhaps most notable were the questions Lauer did not ask of Trump. At an event geared toward national security and military veterans, the NBC co-host failed to ask a single question about Trump’s controversial remarks about Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Sen. John McCain’s prisoner-of-war status or his deferments from the Vietnam War, among other issues.

All of this comes, of course, as a host of media and political observers are beginning to take loud notice—see my commentary earlier this week for WGBHNews.org—that the political press is pummeling Clinton while holding Trump to a much lower standard.

By the way (to return to the beginning), Times public editor Liz Splayd explained her paper’s Mexican misadventure by saying that Healy got caught up with deadline problems—the tone of the day changed significantly once Trump begin his ugly speech in Phoenix. OK. But again, the Post set the right tone in its very first take. It’s fair to ask what is going on at the Times.

Update: To be fair, a sidebar in the Times published Wednesday night made mention of Putin. And I’m told by Harvard’s Christina Pazzanese, though I didn’t see it, that Times reporter Alexander Burns had an even earlier take than Healy’s that did mention Putin. But my point stands. Anyone checking the Times‘s website or apps late Wednesday night would have seen Healy’s story as the big takeout—and there was no mention of Putin.

Update II: The Burns story has been disappeared from the Times website, but Susan Ryan-Vollmar found this.

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Why Brian Williams’ return will be a disaster for NBC News

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

I really don’t understand why the folks at NBC News think serial fabricator Brian Williams can be rehabilitated. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Williams’ second act could be announced as early as today.

Yes, Williams is receiving a significant demotion — he’s supposedly being shipped off to MSNBC, which had a nice run as the liberal alternative to Fox News before plunging into unwatched obscurity the past couple of years. But given that NBC News major domo Andrew Lack is reportedly seeking to revive MSNBC with an injection of actual news, how can a guy who set fire to his own credibility be part of that? As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter: “NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do the news on MSNBC.”

Remember, we’re not just talking about Williams’ lies regarding his helicopter ride in Iraq. There have been multiple instances in which he overstated the facts or just made stuff up. The New York Times reports:

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

And just wait until one of Williams’ anonymous enemies posts a “closely held” clip reel on YouTube that is said to document his worst moments. The Washington Post has this to say:

The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.

Professional cynic Michael Wolff told old friend Mark Leibovich recently that NBC never should have abandoned Williams in the first place. Rather, he said, the network’s executives should have done their best Roger Ailes imitation and defended him as aggressively as Fox News has defended its own business interests.

But this is stupidity masquerading as sagacity. NBC News is not the Fox News Channel. Fox’s product is right-wing talk. NBC News’ purported product is news, served up truthfully. In that market, Williams’ value plunged to zero or close to it within days of his exposure last winter. (The next person who says he would rather see Williams back in the anchor chair rather than Lester Holt will be the first.) I suspect Wolff knows that, but the man does enjoy being provocative.

As for Williams, he needs to leave journalism. And it’s not up to NBC to help him figure out how.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Why Jon Stewart is the anti-Brian Williams

Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.
Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Two high-profile departures from the hot celebrity glare of television were announced late Tuesday. One of those leaving is among the most respected people in media. The other is a charlatan.

The object of our respect, of course, is Jon Stewart, who announced he’ll be retiring from “The Daily Show” later this year. A satirist of the highest order, Stewart has been our truth-teller-in-chief since 1999. The charlatan, needless to say, is Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months without pay as anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News.” It’s hard to imagine he’ll be back.

The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate events has not gone unnoticed. A six-column headline on the front of today’s New York Times reads “Williams Suspended, at Low Point in His Career; Stewart to Depart at High Point.” The departures also say a lot about our changing perspectives on journalism and the people who bring it to us. As I (and many others) noted when Williams first got into trouble last week over his lies about coming under fire in Iraq, there was a time when Walter Cronkite — a network anchor — was considered “the most trusted man in America.”

Today I would argue that no man or woman can lay claim to being the most trusted. The culture is too fractured. Andy Warhol’s old dictum has long since been updated to “On the Web, we will all be famous to 15 people.” Stewart, though, may be the most trusted person in the media for a certain subset that I would define as deeply interested in the news, though not necessarily hyper-informed; urban; and liberal, but skeptical of politicians regardless of ideology. He is the most vital media critic of our time, a worthy successor to A.J. Liebling and Ben Bagdikian.

Stewart is also the ideal media commentator for the Internet age. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I’ve rarely sat down at 11 p.m. to watch “The Daily Show.” I’m far more likely to catch clips on YouTube or watch bits and pieces of previous episodes through my cable provider’s on-demand offerings.

Though Stewart, 52, and Williams, 55, are nearly the same age, they seem to be from completely different generations, with Williams representing the outmoded sit-down-and-let-us-tell-you-what’s-important paradigm. Cronkite himself was said to be uncomfortable with his signoff (“And that’s the way it is”) because he knew it wasn’t true. We can only guess what Williams believes to be true. Which brings me to another important difference between Jon Stewart and Brian Williams. At a time when we have become increasingly uncomfortable with old-fashioned notions about objectivity, many media observers have called for a shift to transparency.

Stewart is utterly transparent — we know what he believes and what perspective he brings to his commentary. Williams tried to project the sort of authority that’s rooted in objectivity. It worked, more or less, until it didn’t. (An aside about objectivity. Straight news, as opposed to analysis or opinion, ought to be offered up with fairness and neutrality. Unfortunately, “objectivity” has all too often come to mean something else — a quest for balance at all costs, even the truth. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan got at this the other day with a piece on “false balance.”)

Stewart is unique, and we’ll still have him for the rest of 2015. I’d like to think the Daily Show franchise is safe. Some of the names people were floating on social media Tuesday, such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, could prove to be worthy successors.

As for Williams, I can’t imagine anyone expects him to resume anchoring duties after such a severe punishment. Mostly likely negotiations on the terms of his departure are already under way. For all the talk about the network nightly news having slipped into obsolescence, it’s still the closest thing we have to a mass medium, watched by more than 20 million people. A new anchor will be named and life will go on as before, at least for a few more years. Someday, though, it will end. And the Brian Williams episode will be looked back on as a signal moment in its demise.

Why Brian Williams may not be able to come back

Even though it’s an anonymous quote, the ending of this New York magazine piece on Brian Williams by Gabriel Sherman shows why it will be hard — maybe impossible — for him to return:

As one insider put it today: “The lingering questions in the executive suite is if he stays, how does he ever sit down with Rand Paul or Chris Christie and say, ‘You said this two years ago, and you said this last week.’ How does he do that?”

He doesn’t. He can’t.

Update: And he won’t. NBC has suspended Williams for six months without pay. Such a harsh punishment is almost certainly a preliminary step toward a negotiated departure.

Can Brian Williams recover from his false Iraq tale?

Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.
Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Update, 8:30 p.m. Williams, in his apology, conceded that the story he had been telling was false — that his helicopter was not fired on and landed safely. Yet the pilot of Williams’ helicopter is now offering an account that’s close enough to Williams’ original story that we might all be tempted to say “never mind.”

The mainstream press this morning is stepping gingerly around Brian Williams’ literally incredible mea culpa about (not) coming under fire in Iraq 12 years ago.

Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times reports that the NBC News anchor “apologized for mistakenly claiming” his helicopter had been shot down. The Washington Post — which, unlike the Times, plays it on page one — is more forthright in saying that Williams “conceded” his story was “false.” But reporter Paul Fahri goes to some lengths not to get ahead of developments.

Not that you can blame either news organization for its caution. Williams is a certified icon of broadcast journalism, and no doubt NBC will go to great lengths to protect him. If Williams is disgraced, so is the network’s news division. It would take years to recover. But what happens next is largely out of NBC’s and Williams’ hands.

As first reported Wednesday by the military news organization Stars and Stripes, Williams has said a military helicopter that was transporting him in Iraq was hit by rocket fire and forced down. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten writes: “Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.”

Yikes. Williams, in addressing viewers on Wednesday, called his version a “mistake,” adding: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

In a timeline for CNN put together by media reporter Brian Stelter, it appears that though Williams spoke and wrote about the incident with varying degrees of inaccuracy over the years, the first time he told a clearly false version was in 2013 on David Letterman’s show.

This looks like a serious lapse of ethical judgment on Williams’ part. I find it hard to believe it was an honest mistake. How can you believe that you were flying on a helicopter that came under fire when you actually were on one that landed safely an hour later?

And I need to emphasize this: It wasn’t just a personal tale that Williams embellished — it was journalism. After all, the essence of journalism, as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Williams was there, we weren’t, and he gave us a false account.

Not everyone is being as cautious as the Times and the Post. Writing last night in the Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik began: “If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday.”

My own sense is that it’s too early to say whether Williams could or even should lose his job over this — although, barring a major exculpatory revelation, it doesn’t look good. Regardless, we have certainly come a long way from the days when an anchorman, Walter Cronkite, could be called “the most trusted man in America.”

Whatever else happens, Williams has permanently forfeited any such claims for himself.

Why the midterms could be disastrous for the planet

PresidentAlfredPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Monday’s broadcast of “The CBS Evening News” began on a portentous note. “Good evening,” said anchor Scott Pelley. “Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, higher temperatures. If you think someone’s trying to tell us something, someone just did.”

Pelley’s introduction was followed by a report on the latest study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to The Washington Post, the panel found that global warming is now “irreversible,” and that drastic steps must be taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality.

No matter. Before the night was over, Americans had turned their backs on the planet. By handing over the Senate to Mitch McConnell and his merry band of Republicans, voters all but ensured that no progress will be made on climate change during the next two years — and that even some tenuous steps in the right direction may be reversed.

At Vox, Brad Plumer noted that Tuesday’s Alfred E. Neuman moment came about despite more than $80 million in campaign spending by environmentalists and despite natural disasters that may be related to climate change, such as the unusual destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the West.

“Which means that if anything’s going to change, it may have to happen outside Congress,” Plumer wrote, adding that “the 2014 election made clear that Washington, at least, isn’t going to be much help on climate policy anytime soon.”

Not much help? That would be the optimistic view. Because as Elana Schor pointed out in Politico, Republicans and conservative Democrats may now have a veto-proof majority to move ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which would bring vast quantities of dirty oil from Canada into the United States, would amount to “the equivalent of adding six million new cars to the road,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben said in an interview with “Democracy Now” earlier this year.

The problem is that though Americans say they care about climate change, they don’t care about it very much.

In September, the Pew Research Center reported the results of a poll that showed 61 percent of the public believed there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming, and that 48 percent rated climate change as “a major threat” — well behind the Islamic State and nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Moreover, whereas Democrats registered 79 percent on “solid evidence” and 68 percent on “major threat,” Republicans scored just 37 percent and 25 percent. The Republican political leadership, anxious to keep its restive right-wing base happy, has every incentive to keep pursuing its science-bashing obstructionist path.

One possible solution to this mess was proposed in the New York Times a few days ago by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan of Duke University: get rid of the midterm elections altogether by extending the terms of representatives from two to four years and by changing senatorial terms from six years to four or eight.

As Schanzer and Sullivan noted, presidential election years are marked by high turnout across a broad spectrum of the electorate. By contrast, the midterms attract a smaller, whiter, older, more conservative cohort that is bent on revenge for the setbacks it suffered two years earlier. (According to NBC News, turnout among those 60 and older Tuesday was 37 percent, compared to just 12 percent for those under 30.)

“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they wrote, “are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.”

There is, of course, virtually no chance of such common-sense reform happening as long as one of our two major parties benefits from it not happening.

The consequences of that inaction can be devastating. According to The Washington Post’s account of this week’s U.N. report, “some impacts of climate change will ‘continue for centuries,’ even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop.”

Sadly, we just kicked the can down the road for at least another two years.

Correction: This commentary originally said that CBS News’ report on climate change was aired on Tuesday rather than Monday.