Trusted Voices Falling Silent

The sun will come out tomorrow – bet your bottom dollar – unless it doesn’t. It could be another rainy day, but the sun will come out eventually, and that simpleminded cloying song isn’t that stupid. In that irritatingly heartwarming musical Little Orphan Annie sings it to a despondent FDR, and a worried Eleanor, looking on, suddenly smiles. She’s charmed and awed at the wisdom of little children, who, alone, know that things will work out, one way or another. They know that despair is not wisdom. One must trust in… well, that’s not clear. Perhaps one must trust that things will simply work out, for no reason at all. Otherwise, one goes mad, or at least turns bitter and resentful and angry and generally unpleasant. The song is about what keeps us all sane – blind trust. That offers hope. Without hope we all might as well just shoot ourselves right now. Optimism, even when there’s no reason for optimism, isn’t stupid – it’s a survival mechanism that keeps us sane.

So, the New Deal will work out just fine, the Great Depression will end, and the Wall Street boys will be just fine with that new SEC and all the new financial regulations, and Republicans will come to love Social Security, and so on and so forth. Sure, but the Great Depression actually ended with Pearl Harbor and the subsequent massive deficit spending and mobilization of every possible American worker to create the American war machine that would decisively win a long worldwide conflict. That’s not in the musical, but one does not turn to Broadway for macroeconomic analysis, and Wall Street and the Republicans are still trying to undo everything FDR did.

Those are the real issues, but Annie’s little song wasn’t about that stuff. It was about trust, trust that things will work out. That’s posited as necessary. Unexamined trust is all we have to keep us alive. Your friends won’t lie to you. Your parents will always love you, and so will your dog and maybe your wife. Most everyone will obey the traffic rules and you can drive to and from work each day and not die. The government won’t lie to you, unless it’s for your own good, and what you see on the news each evening is what’s really going on – the important stuff conveniently ranked in descending order of importance, clearly explained – the basics, so you know what’s really going on in this overwhelming world.

Don’t bet your bottom dollar on that bit about the government. There was Iraq. In this vein, the Wall Street Journal published this Op-Ed by Laurence Silberman, the conservative federal judge who co-chaired the 2004 Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction – to get to the bottom of things. Silberman argues that George W. Bush did NOT “lie” to anyone:

Our WMD commission ultimately determined that the intelligence community was “dead wrong” about Saddam’s weapons. But as I recall, no one in Washington political circles offered significant disagreement with the intelligence community before the invasion. The National Intelligence Estimate was persuasive – to the president, to Congress and to the media.

Simon Maloy counters that:

It was just bad intelligence! Everyone was fooled! You can’t say Bush “lied” about Iraq pursuing WMDs or about the Saddam Hussein regime having ties to 9/11 because he was just echoing what the intelligence community said, which was wrong.

This is a line of argumentation that Bush administration officials and Iraq war boosters have been clinging to ever since it became clear that U.S. troops would found no mobile biological weapons labs and no Mutual Admiration Society correspondence between Saddam and Osama. “We were wrong just like everyone else” isn’t a particularly compelling argument, though I suppose that if you’re responsible for one of the modern era’s most significant foreign policy disasters, “shared incompetence” is a more appealing excuse than “willful deception.”

Maloy then goes on to discuss every “lie” in detail – the Bush administration carefully manufactured each of those dead-wrong “mistakes” for a desired end – as if it matters now. Silberman hates that sort of analysis of course, even now, because those were NOT lies, per se, and saying they were is dangerous – “I am reminded of a similarly baseless accusation that helped the Nazis come to power in Germany: that the German army had not really lost World War I, that the soldiers instead had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by politicians.”

Nazis! Say politicians lie and… Nazis! That is supposed to end the argument. One must trust politicians or all is lost.

That sort of thing is why people turned elsewhere, but not to the press. Silberman is right. The press, except for the McClatchy papers, and much the foreign press, didn’t look into what the Bush folks were saying. The Bush folks said it. They reported what they said. The bloggers were the ones who looked into things, most notably Andrew Sullivan.

Chris Taylor explains the Sullivan approach:

Sullivan himself, a British-American gay conservative pro-pot Catholic libertarian who supported Bush and the Iraq War, recanted, and tilted towards Obama. Nothing about his transition from one side to the other felt forced, and this was part of what was compelling about reading him every day, even if you didn’t agree with him – you knew he was basically intellectually honest, and willing to change his mind if and when new evidence came to light.

That meant that Sullivan was someone you could trust. Just as the sun will come out tomorrow, he was always there, examining the evidence, all of it, thinking things through, in post after post. He gained a massive following – you have to trust someone – and then, after more than thirteen years, he quit. Here’s his last post – he was burnt out – and here’s a survey of the reaction – he may have been the dominant intellectual influence on the issues of the day, each day. And now he’s gone. That sun will not come out tomorrow.

Ah well, there’s always the evening news, and a few specials. No one there thinks things through – there’s no money for the networks in that sort of thing – but you can still get the basics, or maybe not:

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months without pay for exaggerating his role in a helicopter incident in Iraq, marking the first time a network news anchor has been stripped of his duties.

The disciplinary action Tuesday was a stunning fall from grace for Williams, who presided over America’s top-rated newscast for a decade and helped lead it to numerous Emmy and Peabody awards. The punishment follows his Feb. 4 on-air apology for falsely saying that a helicopter in which he was flying on a combat mission in 2003 had come under fire.

Like Bush, he lied about Iraq, but this was a different kind of lie:

The apology touched off a firestorm and was widely perceived as insufficient by a chorus of media critics and war veterans. NBC launched an internal investigation as Williams took a temporary leave of absence. By then, though, the damage to the anchor’s credibility proved too extensive to keep his job.

“Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News,” Steve Burke, president of NBCUniversal, said in a statement. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.” …

Specifically, NBC News President Deborah Turness confirmed in the memo that Williams “misrepresented events” from his original report from Iraq. He had also done the same while telling the story on talk shows and at other events, until Stars and Stripes reported that veterans involved in the incident disputed the anchor’s version.

She did not cite Williams’ remarks about his experience covering Hurricane Katrina, which helped win the anchor a Peabody Award. He described seeing a body floating through the French Quarter of New Orleans and fending off marauding gangs at the hotel where he stayed. Both accounts have been disputed by local news media and authorities.

Turness said the network still had “concerns about comments that occurred while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.”

No one actually died in New Orleans? No, he just embellished a bit, so we get this:

The question now is what happens during the six months Williams is off the air.

One NBC News executive not authorized to discuss the matter publicly said it would be “a period of reflection” for Williams. His future beyond that will most likely be decided by viewers.

Or not:

The NBC News executive confirmed there were two distinct camps within the company on what needed to be done with Williams.

One group thought the network should cut its losses and let Williams go, saying his problems with the truth had damaged his reputation and the brand of NBC News. The other camp’s view was to try to allow him to redeem himself after a lengthy suspension.

The issue is embellishment, and the man from the Network of Embellishment rose to his defense:

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly came to the defense of embattled NBC newsman Brian Williams Monday night.

“There are a lot of people that seem to be real happy that his career’s going down the drain,” O’Reilly said Monday during an appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” …

“Look, every public person in this country is a target,” O’Reilly said. “And with the internet – and you know what it is, it’s a sewer – and these people delight in seeing famous people being taken apart. And I just think it’s wrong. I mean, we’re human beings just like everybody else.”

Perhaps O’Reilly had Andrew Sullivan in mind. Sullivan fact-checked O’Reilly all they time, and Sullivan was merciless. O’Reilly had his facts wrong most of the time and would never admit it. His defense of Williams was no surprise. O’Reilly may be the one in the sewer, but Fox News is Fox News.

Kathleen Parker is more thoughtful:

Williams told stories that, among other things, misrepresented his proximity to danger or death. Some have called his reportage “humble-bragging,” trying to enhance his reputation by focusing on supposed duress.

Others saw Williams’s false reports as outright lies for self-aggrandizement, while still others conceded that sometimes stories change in the retelling. Over time, don’t we all conflate incidents and mess up details to some degree?

Some mixture of all this may have been at play in Williams’s case, though one persistent thought nags like a rude kid yanking on your coat sleeve: “Hey, lady, that guy’s a 10-million-buck newsman; he ain’t supposed to get the facts mixed up!”

It’s not that easy:

The first misremembrance, for which Williams apologized last week, pertains to a 2003 incident in Iraq. Williams said that the Army Chinook he was riding in was forced down by a rocket-propelled grenade – except that his helicopter wasn’t the one that was hit.

Then in 2006, while covering the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Williams initially reported on MSNBC that he was flying at about 1,500 feet and could see two rockets launched from about six miles away.

A month later, the story changed when he told Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart that rockets passed 1,500 feet below his helicopter. Then in 2007, he told an audience at Fairfield University that the rockets sailed just beneath him.

These are conflicting statements, to be sure, but were they malicious or intentionally misleading? Or, are they just stories that get better in the retelling, as humans tend to do? Our recollection of traumatic events is often flawed in some part because fear alters the brain and memory. Whether one is hit or not, surely the terror of flying where rockets are near can magnify and distort events.

This is not to make excuses for Williams but to put into perspective this particular chapter. He wasn’t officially reporting in subsequent renditions but was entertaining an audience with war stories. Is an anchor always an anchor, or does Brian Williams get to be just Brian on occasion?

Perhaps Brian Williams gets to be just Brian in his spare time, his personal time, but news anchors don’t have that any longer. They’re “personalities” the networks market in other venues and on other platforms, to maximize return on the ten-million-dollar investment. This was a train wreck waiting to happen, but it does remove another trusted voice.

And then there were three:

Jon Stewart, who turned Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” into a sharp-edged commentary on current events, delivering the news in layers of silliness and mockery, said on Tuesday that he would step down after more than 16 years as its anchor.

Mr. Stewart, whose contract with Comedy Central ends in September, disclosed his plans during a taping of the program on Tuesday. Saying that “in my heart, I know it is time for someone else” to have the opportunity he had, Mr. Stewart told his audience that he was still working out the details of his departure, which “might be December, might be July.”

“I don’t have any specific plans,” Mr. Stewart said, addressing the camera at the end of his show, at times seeming close to tears. “Got a lot of ideas… I got a lot of things in my head. I’m going to have dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people.”

“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow,” Mr. Stewart added, “but this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.”

Like Sullivan, he was burnt out and restless, and like Sullivan, he was trusted:

In becoming the nation’s satirist in chief, Mr. Stewart imbued the program with a personal sense of justice, even indignation. For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.

There’s no survey data to confirm that – perhaps none is possible. That doesn’t make it any less true, and he was at it to the end:

As recently as Monday night on the show, Mr. Stewart had been taking aim at the recent scandal that has engulfed the NBC news anchor Brian Williams, a frequent “Daily Show” guest who on Tuesday was suspended without pay for six months. Mr. Stewart cast him as a journalist with a propensity for personal exaggeration and commented on the failure of the news media to thoroughly question the underpinnings of the Iraq War.

Speaking of Mr. Williams, Mr. Stewart said, “See, I see the problem. We got us a case here of infotainment confusion syndrome.”

Noting the widespread media coverage of Mr. Williams’s woes, Mr. Stewart wryly added, “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.”

Who is going to say that sort of thing on national television now? Frazier Moore wonders about that:

Stewart didn’t invent satire, but he modernized it and tailored it for an information age ruled by TV and the internet. In compact “Daily Show” segments, he struck a blow against the flabby boundlessness of cable-news and talk-network fare.

No wonder political leaders, authors, scholars and others with useful things to say flocked to his show right along with celebrities who came to pitch their latest projects. Stewart, playing his designated role as court jester, goaded them with humor to get them to say what they meant in ways “serious” interviewers can’t or won’t. In the process, he usually displayed them to their best advantage.

And on those rare occasions when the news was too awful to abide the usual sassiness and Stewart’s passion burned through, viewers knew to take special note. On “The Daily Show,” unlike so many “real” news dispensers, everything that happens ISN’T “Breaking News.”

Now what? At least he had a farm system:

As the lead phony anchor, Stewart stewarded a star system of supporting fake journalists. These included John Oliver, who last year launched HBO’s investigative-comedy half-hour, “Last Week Tonight,” and Larry Wilmore, who recently bowed in the post-Stewart slot with his as-yet-unproven “Nightly Show.”

But Stewart’s greatest protégé is Stephen Colbert, whose “Colbert Report” was a masterful masquerade presided over by a willful nincompoop. The culture is much the poorer for Colbert’s jump to CBS to host the slot vacated by David Letterman in what will likely be a conventional talk show.

Fine, but that doesn’t help:

And, now, fans have been hit with the second of a double whammy that no one let themselves see coming.

The timing of Stewart’s departure could hardly be worse from the viewer’s perspective, with the 2016 presidential campaign gearing up. In recent cycles, Stewart had made himself as much a part of the electoral process as ballot-counting disputes.

For that and many other reasons, it’s hard to fathom the scope of the void he will leave. As a champion of enlightened phoniness in TV journalism, Stewart has proven himself to be one-of-a-kind, a fake who’s unrivalled as the real deal.

Will Leitch puts that this way:

Stewart’s genius turned the mix of comedy and politics into a sort of rationalist warfare. He took the audience’s frustrations and fury with the whole process and gave it a voice. Colbert pointed out how ridiculous this all was, but that wasn’t Stewart’s bag; he wanted you to know how much of an asshole everyone was. He was far more moral, far more outraged. He took himself more seriously than most comedians, which was often his Achilles’ heel. (His first show after 9/11, unlike Letterman’s, is difficult to sit through now; you want him to take some deep breaths, remember he’s on TV and just chill for a second.) But that self-righteousness gave his show an undeniable momentum – and power.

This was why Stewart’s show was never better than during the Bush years, when Stewart’s self-seriousness was most desperately needed, not as a “liberal” matter but one of simple public discourse. While we watched idly as a group of men remade the planet without really asking us, Stewart began to scream. Stewart was one of the first skeptics of the Iraq war, of President Bush, of Donald Rumsfeld’s press conferences, all of it, and as you saw him have more and more material handed to him each night, you slowly began to realize: Oh shit they don’t know what they’re doing, do they? What Stewart was doing wasn’t satire: It was the simply calling of bullshit, every night, when no one else was doing so, when the country was pleading for it. It was brilliant, and it was transcendent.

Your friends won’t lie to you. It’s like that. There are some voices you can trust, implicitly. That keeps us sane. And when they go silent everything goes dark. You can sense it. The sun won’t come out tomorrow, unless, in this case, NBC hires Jon Stewart to replace Brian Williams. But don’t bet your bottom dollar on that. And stop humming that tune.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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