Friday, February 13, 2015

Departures and Deaths: It's Been a Lousy Week for Journalism

What a lousy week this has been for journalism.

A fall from grace. Brian Williams. A graceful though painful abdication. Jon Stewart. A senseless, too early death of an eloquent brave voice. Bob Simon. A died-with-his boots-on moment for a muse of the grey lady of journalism. David Carr.

I hardly ever watched Brian Williams deliver the news. Marketing experts will tell you brand allegiance often can be bequeathed by one’s parents. In our house in Brooklyn we watched Walter Cronkite on CBS. So I’ve stayed loyal to the Tiffany network through Dan Rather, Katie Couric and Scott Pelley, with the occasional Bob Schieffer, Roger Mudd and assorted others thrown into the media mix.

Brian Williams just seemed a little too plastic for me. A little too glib. Too perfect. I’m not happy he has been upended by Iraq war story illusions of his own making. I’ve read analyses of how the mind can trick one into believing events transpired different from reality. Often my brother but usually my sister will contradict my telling of a family story. If you want it told your way, I retort, write your own blog or post a comment on mine. Until then, my version will be passed down to the next generation as Forseter lore.

NBC placed Williams on six-month suspension without pay, but it is hard to believe his truthiness will allow him to be seated again in the network’s anchor chair. He is not the only media casualty of the ill-conceived and duplicitously reasoned invasion of Iraq. We went to war under false pretenses. Too many journalists failed to reveal the truth obscured by politicians. 

Williams created his own combat legend. No one died because of his creative yarn. But his obfuscation tarnished NBC and all media outlets. As Jon Stewart, a Williams fan/friend wryly noted, “Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war.”

Tuesday afternoon I had mentioned to Gilda how much I missed Stephen Colbert’s nightly skewering of the powerful and righteous on The Colbert Report. Naturally I was stunned by Stewart’s sudden abdication of a platform that during his 17 year tenure as host of The Daily Show redefined the focus of TV journalism. 

Virtually alone in the practice, he showcased the shifting, contradictory positions of politicians and media to suit immediate needs and circumstances. His revelations left the viewer wondering why a comedy show and not their local and national newscasts or newspapers detailed the mendacity and dishonesty of elected officials and pundits.

How could Stewart leave us right before the 2016 election? Has he no civic responsibility to shepherd us through all the lying and deceit scheduled to come our way? 

Have I no faith in his replacement, whomever that might be? After all, John Oliver, a Daily Show alumnus, is producing stellar commentary on his new show, Last Week Tonight. But that’s a new franchise. 

I am not sanguine about The Daily Show’s future. Consider Fashion Police, a decadent indulgence Gilda and I enjoy. After Joan Rivers died tragically, I correctly predicted Kathy Griffin would succeed her as leader of the panel. But she has not succeeded in being as over-the-top funny as Rivers. What’s saving the show for us is the contributions of Brad Goreski, who replaced George Kotsiopoulos, and more liberated commentary from Giuliana Rancic.

I suspect the first time I became aware of Bob Simon was during his stint covering the Yom Kippur War in 1973 for CBS. Battlefields seemingly drew him into expanding spheres of combat worldwide. He delivered stories of human suffering amid the turmoil. But he also spotlighted human achievements, especially during his 60 Minutes years. The 60 Minutes Simon piece Scott Pelley re-aired Thursday on the Congo Kimbanquist Symphony Orchestra was among my favorites.  

After more than 40 years covering conflicts and catastrophes around the world, Simon perished in Manhattan, in a car crash of the town car he was riding in on the West Side Highway. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt. We’ll never know if he would have survived the wreckage had he been belted in. We do know hours before he had finished working on his latest 60 Minutes segment. It will be broadcast Sunday.

David Carr of The New York Times was a media insider, probably known to few outside the New York-Los Angeles-Washington industry axis. He died shortly after moderating a panel discussion of CitizenFour. That’s the Oscar-nominated documentary about Edward Snowden who leaked National Security Agency secrets. On the panel were Snowden, via live video feed from his perch in Russia; Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who published Snowden’s material; and Laura Poitras, the director of CitizenFour. 

Carr was not handsome like Williams, or Stewart, or the young and even old Simon. In his last years he appeared gaunt, sickly, several sizes too small for his clothing. A life that overcame drug addiction, alcoholism, cancer, ended Thursday night in a place he revered more than almost any other—the newsroom of The New York Times.

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