Brian was just doing his job

February 19, 2015

NBC News anchor Brian Williams lied about what happened to him in Iraq, but there are much bigger fabrications at play in the corporate media, write Elizabeth Schulte.

"FOLLOW THE money" was the catchphrase from the movie All the President's Men, the 1976 dramatization of the investigation by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that helped blow the lid off the Watergate scandal that engulfed the presidency of Richard Nixon.

If the two Washington Post reporters "followed the money," said their anonymous informant "Deep Throat," it would--and did--lead them to corruption at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

While it's in no way as earth-shattering a revelation as Watergate, the recent scandal surrounding NBC News anchor Brian Williams and his lies about his experiences covering the Iraq War is best understood by "following the money"--but for different reasons.

A longtime managing editor and anchor of NBC Nightly News who made frequent appearances on non-news shows like Saturday Night Live, Late Show with David Letterman and 30 Rock, Williams came under a different kind of fire this month after service members said Williams was lying when he claimed his helicopter had been "hit and crippled by enemy fire" in Iraq in 2003. Soldiers told Stars and Stripes newspaper that Williams' helicopter was at least an hour behind the one that was shot down that day.

Brian Williams
Brian Williams (David Shankbone)

On January 30, Williams retold the story as part of an on-air public tribute to the soldier who had supposedly saved his life--including footage of the two men appearing on the Jumbotron of a hockey game at Madison Square Gardens as the announcer repeated the story of Williams' alleged brush with death.

Williams made an on-air apology, but it didn't end the controversy. NBC gave him a six-month suspension without pay, and rumors began circulating that Williams might be off the air for good.

"By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News," Stephen Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal and executive vice president of NBC's parent company Comcast. "His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate."

It's unconscionable that Williams would lie about a near-death experience during the Iraq War (and evidently about his experiences during the Katrina disaster as well). But the millionaire heads of NBC have a lot of nerve directing their righteous indignation at Williams alone.

That's why it helps to follow the money.

WITH THE highest ratings among all the news programs, the Nightly News with Brian Williams raked in a reported $200 million in ad revenues in 2013 far ahead of ABC World News Tonight or the CBS Evening News.

NBC executives rely on Williams to be a likeable and believable (in that order) news anchor. However, it's not enough to simply report the news. Between the commercials for Cialis and Crestor, he has to present the affable Brian Williams "brand" of celebrity news anchor.

This means that Williams and the other celebrity journalists have to see their jobs as more than reporting the news--they are the news. And in the eyes of the industry bosses, if Williams was at all successful, it was because of how entertaining, not informative, he was.

But it would wrong to say that the Williams debacle is just about the money. The corporate media have bigger interests at heart--those of the powers-that-be, particularly the political powers that dominate the U.S. government.

During the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. news media manned its own battle stations--by echoing every word from State Department and Pentagon press releases and press conferences in order to bolster the call for war. This was true throughout the mainstream media--from the humblest local news stations to the network news to the elite New York Times.

For instance, in an article titled "Threats and Responses" the Times' Judith Miller and Michael Gordon repeated every Bush administration lie for war on Iraq--including the false claim the Iraqi military possessed "weapons of mass destruction." "Washington dare not wait until analysts have found hard evidence that Mr. Hussein has acquired a nuclear weapon," Miller and Gordon wrote. "The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' [unnamed officials] argue, may be a mushroom cloud."

When the invasion of Iraq began, U.S. reporters were also there--embedded with U.S. troops to tell a one-sided story of a one-sided war, carried out by the world's richest and most powerful countries against one of the poorest in the world. Even on the scene in Iraq, the celebrity news people like Brian Williams kept repeating the Bush administration line, never daring to go outside their comfort zone and talk to an Iraqi.

In this context, it's not so surprising that Williams would come up with his own colorful war story--if only to slightly differentiate what he said from the State Department line he regurgitated along with his fellow "journalists."

Independent reporter Dahr Jamail went to Iraq in 2003 as an "unembedded" reporter to tell the stories of ordinary Iraqis living under U.S. war and occupation, including the U.S. siege of Falluja. He also wrote a book about the U.S. soldiers who resisted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jamail said in a 2004 interview:

I had done all the usual actions of attempting to speak up and effect change at home--calling and writing senators/congresspeople, attending teach-ins, spreading information. After watching the worldwide demonstrations on February 15, 2003, be brushed aside as a "focus group," I knew then that the minds of the American public had been misled by the corporate media who mindlessly supported the objectives of the Bush regime, and reporting the true effects of the invasion/occupation on the Iraqi people and U.S. soldiers was what I needed to do.

What if the corporate news agencies had been as questioning of the U.S. government's drive to war as they are now of Williams' fabricated experiences?

WILLIAMS MAY yet get out of this mess with his career intact, because if the corporate media's past is any guide, lying may be an offense--but it's far less offensive than telling the truth.

In 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb first wrote about his extensive investigation into the connections between the Reagan administration's arming of the anti-communist contras trying to overthrow the democratically elected government in Nicaragua, and the drug trafficking and flood of crack cocaine into poor, Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

The rest of the media ignored the story--when they finally acknowledged its existence, it was only to try to discredit Webb's reporting. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times all conducted their own smears of Webb, who was eventually demoted at the Mercury News and drummed out of mainstream journalism.

The news media thus proved their loyalty to the U.S. government line--perhaps more loyal than the U.S. government itself. In the late 1990s, the CIA issued a report that confirmed much of findings of Webb's investigation. Despite this, much of the "credible" corporate media has stuck to its virulent condemnation of Webb.

For many people who are already critical of the corporate media, the Williams scandal is hardly a revelation. But this shouldn't keep them from being angered by it. More than 9 million people watched Brian Williams every night to get the news--despite the fact that they didn't get a lot of news in return. When entertainment journalism is the only thing on offer on network television, people are being cheated of their democratic right to have access to news and information.

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