Monday, March 9, 2015

Week of 03/09/2015

Brian Versus Bill-O
When it comes to the idea of honesty and integrity in the media, I can’t help but come back to a little exchange between Jon Stewart and the political commentators on CNN’s now-defunct series “Crossfire” back in 2004.  Stewart was being grilled by the hosts about his Comedy Central series “The Daily Show” about his supposed “journalistic integrity” when Stewart turned the tables on them.
“You're on CNN” he said. “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”
That pretty much spelled the end of that incarnation of “Crossfire” ten years ago.  Meanwhile, Stewart only recently announced his retirement from “The Daily Show”.
The “Crossfire” hosts made the mistake that a lot of other people do about Stewart’s show on Comedy Central.  “The Daily Show” is not a news program.  It’s a satire of a news program.  Stewart is not a reporter.  He doesn’t pretend to be a journalist.  He is a comedian.  He doesn’t do what he does to inform.  He does what he does to entertain.
And yet we’ll watch his show instead of the local news, and we’ll trust what he says more than we will the network anchors.
And that, I think, is the real joke.  But the joke isn’t on us.  It’s on the people that think that Stewart is a journalist or that his Comedy Central show is a real news program.
That brings us to a guy named Brian and another guy named Bill-O.
Brian Williams was long considered a reporter before he became the host of NBC Nightly News.  People trusted him.  If he said something happened, then viewers believed that it did, because they believed in him to be honest.
That kind of honesty and trust is not easy to build.  And yet it can be ruined so easily.
In February of 2015, Brian announced that he may have told a fib about being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq.  And, for that, he was taking some time off from his job as Managing Editor and host of the Nightly News.  Not long afterward, NBC decided his time away would be six months without pay, and there is some speculation that it may eventually end his employment altogether.
There is some precedence.  Dan Rather lost his job as the “grand poohbah” of CBS News – a position he inherited from the great Walter Cronkite – after it was discovered that one of his stories had a questionable source.  And no matter how many times Rather said the documents were true, the facts continued to mount until his bosses decided to pull the plug and terminate his job.  The scandal destroyed the integrity of that network’s news division, and NBC execs could very well move to make sure that the same doesn’t happen to their own division.
That brings us to Bill-O, aka Bill O’Reilly. 
Bill-O, it seems, has been making claims for quite some time that are now turning out to be false.  Was he a “war correspondent” during the Falklands War?  Apparently not, since he was in Buenos Ares at the time looking at photographs.  Was he there at the hotel when the friend of Lee Harvey Oswald killed himself?  Well the sheriff’s report and the Associated Press reports at the time say otherwise.  So do his co-workers at WFAA in Dallas, who say they were with him in Texas when George de Mohrenschildt committed suicide in Florida.
As far as anyone knows, Bill-O does not possess the power of teleportation, nor does he own a teleporter straight out of “Star Trek”, so it’s a little difficult to claim that you can go from Texas to Florida in an instant.
Oh, and apparently he wasn’t caught up in the Los Angeles riots of 1992 either.
Bill-O, Bill-O, Bill-O…you just can’t seem to keep your history straight.
So why is Bill-O still on the air?  You would think that after he went on a tear about Brian Williams and the integrity of the news division that Fox News would set the example, especially after Bill-O started bashing the so-called “liberal media” following Brian’s suspension.  “Think about other news agencies that are distorting the facts,” he said.
Bill-O?  They are. 
But instead of admitting to his instances of Munchausenism, Bill-O and his employers at Fox News have been busy attacking the accusers.  They don’t refute the claims with hard proof or evidence.  They simply dismiss the accusations of Bill-O’s lies and exaggerations by screaming “Liberal agenda” in the same way that a little boy refutes his bad behavior by saying that the other person’s a “doodie-head”.
But, you know what?  There is a way out for Bill-O.
Because let’s get brutally honest here… what Brian Williams does (or did) and what Bill-O does are two different things.
Brian is/was a reporter and a news anchor.  His job depends on people trusting what he says is honest and factual.  His accounts need to be fact-checked and verified.
But Bill-O really isn’t a news anchor, is he?  No, he isn’t.  He is the host of a commentary program that dissects the news of the day with his own slanted spin.  Maybe he was a reporter once upon a time, but not today.  Not while he sits in the chair of the “O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News.  Not while he churns out books talking about “Killing” this person and “Killing” that person like they were Harlequin novels.
Bill-O is a commentator.  Commentators have different sets of rules than a news anchor.  They don’t have to be completely factual.  They can exaggerate things and make stuff up to get their point across.  I should know, because I’ve been a commentator longer than Bill-O had a Fox News program, and I’ve been pointing out the line between journalism and commentary for years now.  (And, by the way, that’s not an exaggeration.  My commentary site started months before Fox News went on the air.)
As a commentator, Bill-O can live in and report from his fantasy world with impunity.  He can talk about how he witnessed famous events without actually being there.  He can accuse the United States Army of committing war crimes in Malmedy during World War II.  He can claim that a falafel is just another word for an exfoliating bath sponge.  He can claim he defied the Ottoman Empire and flew on a cannonball.  Oh, wait, that last one wasn’t Bill-O; that was Barron Munchausen.  Well it’s easy to see how anyone could confuse the two of them.  (Just kidding, of course.)
Fox News could even take it to the next step and just admit what their critics have long accused them of being… not a news network, but rather a political propaganda machine for the conservatives and neo-conservatives.  Then they won’t ever have to worry about “journalistic integrity” or whether or not their media personalities are telling the truth.  But I really don’t see that happening anytime soon.  They love the pretense of being a “superior” media outlet too much to give it up.
What Brian Williams did was sad and needless.  But at least he had the integrity and the courage to own up to his mistake when exposed and accept the punishment from his employer.  What would truly be sad is not that Bill-O won’t do the same, but if his own viewers refuse to hold him to the same standards that he pompously decrees others should live up to.

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