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Wednesday, 11 February 2015 07:12

The Problem Is Much Bigger Than Brian Williams: Corporate News Is Not Trustworthy

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3778117956 9537b4de41 o(Image: Alejandra H. Covarrubias)

The endless news analysis about the fate of Brian Williams is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: The so-called television journalists and pundits in this country often eclipse the news that they are supposed to cover. Even more importantly, Williams' "misremembering" itself points to a greater problem: It threatens to expose the facade of corporate television, breaking down the notion that corporate TV truly informs us about real news priorities.

What concerns Comcast (which owns NBC) and the other corporate networks - including, of course, cable TV - is that if the public starts to view Williams as "untrustworthy," that development may topple the delusion that television news is unbiased. NBC - or any network - needs its high-profile anchors to appear untainted in order to deliver the largest possible audience to corporate advertisers. 

There is a pivotal and memorable scene in the film "Good Night, and Good Luck," about famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, who after a storied career of speaking truth to power is essentially demoted by CBS Chairman William Paley. Before Paley's action (which occurred more than 50 years ago), Murrow is depicted as one of the last television journalists who saw ferreting out the truth as the touchstone of his profession. Why was he humiliated? Because Paley explained to him that it was a new era – an era when news divisions needed to start making money and be guided by overall corporate television financial considerations.

In short, television news abandoned key journalistic standards to make news reporting part of an advertising strategy - one that ensures profitability. Given that the national television news programs viewed by most people in the US are owned by corporations, that means that the selection and editing of the news cannot upset the status quo. If politicians in DC become perturbed, regulations that negatively impact corporate profitability could follow - and that must be avoided at all costs. Who knows? The fairness doctrine might be re-enacted, the government might start requiring large fees for corporations to use public airwaves, or more public access might be required of corporate networks.

Williams is certainly guilty of inflating his valor and telling tall tales (some of which reinforced a racist narrative about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), but the more significant issue is that touting him or any national news anchor as trustworthy and credible is fraudulent. Why? Because they read the news that is edited and selected specifically to avoid rocking the boat of the corporate narrative.

National news programs also tend to focus on dramatic snippets or banter, which pulls in viewers on an emotional level. In addition, rarely is foreign policy (or even domestic policy) analyzed because it is not as compelling as conflicts between individual politicians - and, of course, it might alienate the duopoly in DC.

Given that Brian Williams was also the managing editor of The NBC Nightly News, his daily imprimatur on what is "priority" news - wedged between commercials - was what Comcast and NBC "trusted" about him. He could be relied on not to air anything that would negatively impact the business interests of his employer. 

He also had a glib, sonorous voice; a handsome demeanor; and facial cues that could give the appearance of concern at just the right moments to persuade viewers that he was "trustworthy." The prestidigitation here is that the corporate networks rely on the perception of the credibility of their anchors and reporters to turn highly selective, brief news headlines into a pro-status quo narrative.

That is why the media is obsessing about the fate and fibs of Brian Williams. In reality, Williams is threatening because his fictionalizing of events on a personal level comes too close to revealing that corporate news is about sustaining a self-serving narrative, not about broadcasting news that matters.

Copyright Truthout. May Not Be Reprinted Without Permission.