By now everyone knows about his transgressions. If even only some of the reports are true, Brian Williams is a serial embellisher, a self-aggrandizing fabulist.
No doubt everyone knows somebody like this, and if you don't it's probably because you're that guy. But Williams' case is special. This isn't some sad Willy Loman who needs to invent impressive stories about himself. If anything, he needed to not tell such stories, given that he reportedly makes more than $10 million a year to be a trusted name in news.
Yet he couldn't stop himself.
"To walk down a street with an anchor is to be stunned both by how many people recognize them and how many viewers call out to them about specific stories," writes Ken Auletta, the New Yorker's media critic. "There's a respectful familiarity different from the awe displayed to Hollywood celebrities. The anchor is treated as the citizen's trusted guide to the news. As a result, they can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God."
I have no doubt that's true. But I am also certain that Williams is hearing only from the people who see him as their trusted guide to the news, and that can be very deceptive.
But you know what virtually never happens? Someone coming up to me to tell me how much they hated my column, my comments, my book, my face or my existence.
Now, all you have to do is peek at the comment thread on this column to know that such people exist. Yet almost none of these people ever say anything to me personally. If I didn't know better — and believe me I do — I might get a pretty skewed impression of what "the public" thinks of me.
So I can only imagine what it must be like for truly famous people, who live in Olympian redoubts among people with a professional interest in their divinity.
I recently talked to a donor close to
And that's Mitt Romney, a vastly more controversial figure. Until this story broke, Williams was an unobtrusive news-reading mannequin who occasionally broke character to tell jokes — and fake tales of valor — on late-night talk shows. Perhaps he told these stories because, deep down, he knew he was a false idol. Or maybe not.
But it is instructive to watch Williams' fellow media Olympians rally to his defense. They have an investment in a system that rewards celebrity so handsomely — and not just financially. They are the last beneficiaries of the Old Order, when nightly news anchors were cultivated to be "the voice of God," in the words of former CBS News executive producer Jim Murphy.
Those days are almost gone. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 27% of respondents could correctly identify Williams from his photograph, and only 3% could say what he did for a living. Three percent thought he was Tom Brokaw, and 2% thought he was Joe Biden.
Thanks to social media — which was Williams' undoing (and Dan Rather's) — we are living during the twilight of the idols. But, as always, the last people to let go of the old gods are their loyal priests.
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