Brian Williams Responds to Criticism

29 April 2008

As I wrote the other day, Elizabeth Edwards wrote a great critique of television journalism the other day, which was printed in The New York Times. In it, she points out that journalists tend to obsess over trivial issues like bowling scores and haircuts, and generally omit any in-depth analysis of major issues such as health care (which voters themselves identify as the #3 most important issue they care about - right behind the economy and the war).

Brian Williams of ABC responds (at his blog) by making fun of the lower circulation of The New York Times and heaping praise on an inane article by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, in which she argues that Barack Obama maybe isn't patriotic enough to be President. He goes so far as to say that Noonan should be awarded a Pulitzer prize for writing things like this:

Main thought. Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama's problem. America is Mr. Obama's problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men's Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter's Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There's gold in that history.

John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.

Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That's why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel. They wonder if it means something. Not that the presence of the pin proves love of country -- any cynic can wear a pin, and many cynics do. But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it, and what did he learn was loveable, and what does he think about it all?

Another challenge. Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they're questioning its content, its fullness. Gate 14 has a right to hear this. They'd lean forward to hear.

This is exactly what's wrong with journalism today. It obsesses over speculation into the candidates' personalities and deep-seated feelings, rather than on actual policy and substance. Just to remind everybody, we're fighting two wars, the country is $9 trillion in debt, social security and tax policy still have to be addressed, health care costs are rising, people are losing their homes, Congress is debating farm policy, we're dependent upon increasingly expensive foreign oil, etc. And we're spending our time arguing over who gets more misty-eyed when they think about the Wright brothers building airplanes?
(h/t Glenn Greenwald)

UPDATE: Of course The New York Times itself isn't immune from criticism, as Brian Williams points out, but why does he go to the travel, style, an restaurant sections for examples of non-substantive news coverage? And why does he gloss over the main point of the Edwards article?

UPDATE II: Just to be clear, I don't watch Brian Williams's show on NBC, and my criticisms aren't directed at his show. I'd have to look at his past schedule to tell if he's been obsessing over these same inane issues. Rather, I've seen a definite trend towards that kind of coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX. I've also seen that obsession spill over into ABC News. What bothers me in this blog entry of his is how Williams brushes off that criticism of television news generally (which I think needs to be seriously addressed), and holds up that awful Peggy Noonan column as an example of good journalism.

UPDATE III: You can read more about NBC's coverage here, at PEJ's annual State of the Media report.

UPDATE IV: Picking up on "UPDATE I," Maureen Dowd at The New York Times is one of worst when it comes to this kind of trashy, mind-reading, speculative journalism.

UPDATE V: With regard to Williams's remarks about The New York Times losing circulation, Glenn Greenwald notes that network news has also seen its ratings plummet, losing about 1 million viewers per year for the last 26 years. Greenwald also notes that Williams is an avid fan of Rush Limbaugh, for what it's worth.

UPDATE VI: Even though he hasn't covered the Pentagon pundits story that The New York Times broke, Brian Williams has seen fit to cover Hannah Montana on his Nightly News program.

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