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Monday, 09 February 2015 08:00

Brian Williams' Racially Coded Inflammatory Hurricane Katrina Coverage

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aritzcarltonLobby of the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton, where Brian Williams stayed during his "coverage" of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Britt Reints)

Brian Williams has taken a hiatus from being an anchor for NBC Nightly News due to the fallout from his embellishing a tale of reporting in Iraq. His evolving story of "stolen valor" was clearly used to enhance the image that he was an intrepid, courageous journalist. Now, he and the NBC brass are waiting to see if Williams can ride out the storm he created by "disappearing him" for a couple of weeks.

As television critic Mary McNamara of The Los Angeles Times writes, Williams represents the contemporary conflation - ironic because that is what Williams claims happened with memories of helicoptering around in Iraq more than a decade ago - of purported journalist anchor and image branding. The two are generally mutually reinforcing in this age of news as both entertainment and revenue source for corporate broadcasting - as long as tall tales are not exposed. McNamara writes:

Williams is stepping aside because this time the news is bad. In telling that story, he chose to bolster the Brian Williams brand at the expense of the "NBC Nightly News." 

Modern journalism is beset by many challenges, logistical and fundamental, but none are as potentially dangerous as its growing cultivation of and reliance on personal brand...

Indeed, we now expect our journalists to be personalities, to exist outside the confines of their day jobs in exciting and entertaining ways. It's not enough to deliver the news, star journalists need to tweet humorously and/or with special insight. They need to make cameos in comedies, appear on talk shows and in magazines, to share their style secrets and personal lives, and offer across-the-board commentary.

McNamara's analysis is devastatingly incisive, but BuzzFlash at Truthout would disagree that Williams "chose to bolster the Brian Williams brand at the expense of the 'NBC Nightly News.'" NBC - which is now owned by the predatory Comcast - was delighted that Williams could banter with Letterman or Jon Stewart. When Williams was bolstering his brand with riveting narratives that may have sometimes been at variance with the facts, it helped buttress an audience for the legacy broadcast networks that have been under siege from cable news programs and the internet for years. Accounts of supposedly courageous reporting help keep people from asking why a pretty-boy teleprompter news reader gets paid $10 million a year.

Don't for a moment believe the hype that Brian Williams was "the most trusted name in news." Say what? What can you trust about almost any corporate news on television? They all reflect a US government and oligarchical bias; they are a keystone in the plutocracy. What Williams and so many of his colleagues provide is the appearance of trustworthiness. The content, however, of what they report - and particularly what they choose to report on - is really another thing altogether; Williams, as managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, always made sure that the so-called news was consistently presented through a corporate and government lens.

The entire NBC Nightly News - as well as other corporate news broadcasts - is based on certain assumptions that are biased and often false, as in the build-up to the Iraq War. At that time, the corporate newscasts basically aired the pronouncements of the Bush/Cheney administration about the need to attack Iraq without challenging them. It wasn't news; it was propaganda.

There is another story about Brian Williams "enhancing" his reporting that is far more insidious than his evolving whopper about being in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) more than a decade ago. This concerns Williams' reporting during Hurricane Katrina. Even David Carr of The New York Times writes of the unfolding Williams' smash-up:

Beyond those strategic failures, if you are going to tell a war story that sprints past the truth, it best not be about war. Those of us who worked the Hurricane Katrina coverage rolled our eyes at some of the stories Mr. Williams told of the mayhem there....

However, BuzzFlash at Truthout believes that what Williams claimed he experienced during Hurricane Katrina was far more brazenly self-enhancing – and while fostering incendiary and harmful racial images. According to a Louisiana daily newspaper, The New Orleans Advocate, Williams presented the image of a city beset by criminal thugs. Racial prejudice was prevalent in much of the corporate reporting coming out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Brian Williams was on board with that despicable narrative. The New Orleans Advocate noted in a February 8 article:

And last year, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, the man he replaced in the anchor chair at NBC, Williams said:

"... our hotel was overrun with gangs, I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans by a young police officer. We are friends to this day. And uh, it just was uh, I look back at total agony..."

Williams has described his experiences during Katrina as personally transformative, and he has returned to the city and the topic numerous times since.

"I saw fear, I saw death, I saw depravity, I saw firearms being brandished, I saw looting," he told the Los Angeles Times a year after Katrina made landfall.

He also recalled the danger of the moment in a 2007 interview on C-SPAN.

"We had to have men with guns behind me one night because I was the only source of light downtown, was the lights that were illuminating the broadcast," Williams said. "We were told not to drink our bottled water in front of people because we could get killed for it."

Today, even The Washington Post decided to report on the questionable factuality of some of Williams' more provocative claims about his experience in Katrina in an article that reveals much about the lifestyle of a 10 million dollar broadcast news anchor, "Was Brian Williams terrorized by gangs at the Ritz-Carlton during Katrina?":

In September 2005, the Times-Picayune reported that numerous stories of violence and gunfire had been wildly exaggerated in the days following Katrina. Rumor begat rumor. New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass said he had a perfect anecdote to illustrate that effect.

"He heard 'some civilians' talking about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and started raping women - including his 24-year-old daughter, who stayed there through the storm," the New Orleans paper reported. "He rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren't armed and were easily turned back by police."

Then another man named Richard Rhodes who stayed at the Ritz as well said he didn't remember any gangs, telling The New Orleans Advocate that Williams had exaggerated.

The Post and other print sources also dispute accounts of the anchor's alleged bout with dysentery during Katrina. The New Orleans Advocate quotes a former New Orleans commissioner of health, Dr. Brobson Lutz:

"We were never wet. It was never wet," he remarked of the conditions in the city's most historic neighborhood [the French Quarter, where Williams was staying at the Ritz-Carlton].

As for dysentery, "I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don't recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward," Lutz said.

Lutz's quote doesn't involve one of Williams' veiled racially-charged claims, but it does further undercut Williams' credibility. It supports the theory that Williams creates stories that make for more dramatic television. It's the difference between being Harrison Ford in Raider's of the Lost Ark and being a journalist.

The most egregious wrong Williams committed, however, was not creating a narrative riddled with likely fabrications to enhance ratings and his brand, it was his shameless self-indulgence in fanning the flames of racial stereotypes.

"We were told not to drink our bottled water in front of people because we could get killed for it," Williams said (as noted earlier). That is a coded and self-serving racist stoking that is as unprovable as it was shameful for Williams to publicly claim.

Copyright Truthout. May Not Be Reprinted Without Permission.