COULDNT GET NO RESPECT! Brian Williams possesses vast skills. At least, thats how Williams reports it: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 14, 2007
WE HAVE A WINNER: Somewhat predictably, we do have a winner! Barack Obama refuses to dress the part of the presidential contender, with all of its safely prepackaged banality, Robin Givhan tells us this morning. Of course, Givhan is the last person on earth who ought to be playing the banality card. For example, heres her opening nugget:
Do they play the national anthem at fish fries? (Beyond that, are we supposed to think that Givhan has seen Obama at such an event?) By the way, at yesterdays debate, only two candidates wore red ties—and one of them was Obama! (Obviously, theres nothing wrong with that.) As near as we can tell from the tape, only Richardson sported a flag pin.
But then, Givhan was explaining how Obama comes across, not how the world really is.
Yes, Givhans work is largely novel/narrative, like much of her daft cohorts product. And dont worry—Givhan knows narrative:
Like the rest of her banal cohort, Givhan knows Kerrys wind-surfing wasnt cool. And she seems to know something else—she knows she doesnt have to say why. By the way: Givhan wonders if Clinton was called cool after Arsenio. As with so many of her breed, it doesnt seem to enter her mind that you can actually look such things up. (Answer: Yes—he was called that. But novelists often by-pass Nexis in the course of assembling their novels.)
Meanwhile, over at How He Talks, Dana Milbank is a bit predictable too. When he profiled Clinton earlier in the week, he savaged her for talking education to a roomful of teachers. Today, he uses his moments critiquing Obama as a chance to aim standard insults at Clinton. Good old Milbank! He refers to Clinton as ol lady and granny just in his first six paragraphs.
But this is how this simpering breed has written politics for many years. For reasons we cant begin to explain, the liberal world is prepared to accept this. Banality helps define the age—and on our side, we dont seem to care.
HOW TO SPREAD RUMORS, CONTINUED: This morning, Katherine Kit Seelye helps Mike Huckabee spread his Jesus-and-Satan story. It doesnt seem to enter Kits heads that something is wrong with this treatment:
Truly, thats amazing. It was never my intention to denigrate his faith, Seelye quotes Huckabee saying. ''I don't think his Mormon faith should have anything to do with him being elected.'' But is that tale about Jesus-and-Satan part of Romneys Mormon faith? Just like the Washington Posts Michael Shear (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/13/07), Seelye forgets to tell us.
But then, the corps has been writing a textbook this week. That textbooks title? How To Spread Rumors. To state the obvious, you shouldnt keep repeating false claims—unless you want false claims to spread. What explains the breakdown here? We dont have the slightest idea. But this is the work of your upper-end press corps—the best work your press corps can offer!
TIM DIDNT ASK: Finally, someone asked Rudy about those billing practices concerning Judith Nathans security detail. It was Carolyn Washburn, popping this question at Wednesdays Republican forum:
Admittedly, that question was rather opaque. (She asked a similarly vague follow-up.) But last Sunday, Tim Russert didnt ask about these odd billing practices at all when he spent the full hour with Rudy. As is required by Hard Pundit Law, pundits stampeded to tell the world how rough-and-tough Tim had been with the hopeful. But he wasnt tough when it came to this matter. He saved the question of Nathans security until late in the sleep-inducing hour, and then he asked no questions at all about those odd billing practices. He only asked if Nathan had deserved her security (easy to answer—yes)—and in asking that, he made several basic factual blunders concerning simple chronology. These blunders let Rudy use his time to correct his hosts mistakes. (Well admit that Russerts one unpleasant moment came when he said the word mistress.)
Was Russert soft on Rudy? For ourselves, we wouldnt say that—but he wasnt especially hard on him either. In fairness, Russert had already staged soft-soap sessions with Candidates Clinton and Obama.
For ourselves, we dont care much about Nathans security, or about the way it was billed. We were struck by the questions that werent asked at all—questions about health care and taxation, for example. As a candidate, Giuliani has paraded grandly about, saying 1) that European health care is a disaster, and 2) that he will raise additional revenue by cutting federal tax rates. These claims are straight from the cuckoos nest—and they deal with basic matters. But so what? As Russert made clear again this week, Republican candidates can say any damn thing they like—as long as they say it about basic policy. They can announce that up is down. Even the tough guys dont care.
BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Howard Kurtz knows how to confect Brian Williams life story. Why not read each thrilling installment?
In Part 3, we learn about Williams vast skills—for which he could get no respect.
PART 3—COULDNT GET NO RESPECT: Brian Williams may have made a rookie mistake in the fall of '94. The perfectly coiffed anchor had signed with NBC one year before, lured away from CBS by Tom Brokaws rich, deep baritone. He soon became NBCs weekend anchor. Now hed been shipped down to DC, where he was serving as White House correspondent.
And thats when Williams may have made a basic rookie mistake. TV writer Barbara Matusow wanted to profile him for The Washingtonian. And uh-oh! Breaking a key rule of Big Anchor Self-Definition, Williams let Matusow come to his home—let her see how he actually lived. People, Big Anchors never do that. Such elementary rookie mistakes can lead to copy like this:
Oof! Today, NBC anchors go to great lengths to tell you theyre average Joe men-of-the-people—the kinds of people who come from Buffalo, shop at the Price Club, and are constantly up to their asses in water. Theyve seen their cars die in cornfields. And when they sign contracts worth more than $20 million, theyre principally thrilled by the length of the pact (seven years)—because their average-Joe, store-manager dads always taught them about job security. At least, these are the things they tend to say to journalists who write about them. If those journos are compliant enough—and Howard Kurtz is—they just type up all the bull-roar.
Just a guess: That description of Williams home—it looked like an ambassadors residence—has been used, in the past dozen years, to show other anchors what not to do in these profile situations. Result? Comedians never let you see them sweat—and anchors never let you see how they live. They tell you about their modest home—but you dont get to see it. (Describing that caretaker up in New Canaan may not have been the greatest move either.)
In fairness, it seems that Williams already had some moves in place when he was profiled by Matusow. According to the subsequent profile, he and his wife had just come back from a school outing in rural Maryland, picking cucumbers for Martha's Table, which feeds the needy when they met the scribe at the Italianate mansion in which they were seen to be comfortably lounging. And it turns out that Williams had mentioned the fact that [w]hen he was a volunteer fireman back in Middletown, New Jersey, his nickname was Permapress. Beyond that, the future workhorse—the one so faithfully detailed by Kurtz—already was in evidence:
Williams didnt drain any sump pumps this day. But he did say hed been folding his trousers, until long into the night.
So Matusows profile did include some of Williams average-Joe tics—the kinds of tics which animate so much of Kurtzs new book, Reality Show. But a rule emerged from Williams experience: Never let them see where you live! They may come out describing your compulsive neatness (The magazines on the rectangular coffee table in the living room—Time, Newsweek, New Republic, among others—are arranged in four precise rows of six copies each, Matusow wrote.) And if your wife blabs to them too much, and they see your car, theyll also write things this: Jane says his closets and the inside of his BMW is immaculate.
Never let them see how you live! Its a basic rule for modern anchors, a rule observed all through the press. Given the corps long-time fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, its intriguing to note how hard it is to learn about Big Journos lifestyles.
For example, consider the Nantucket lifestyle of the NBC News island clique. As weve noted in the past, Russert and Matthews own homes among the islands swells, hard by former GE CEO Jack Welch and former NBC News chief Robert Wright (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/04). But if The Washingtonians Sally Bradie hadnt discussed this intriguing arrangement on that one occasion in 2003, this highly amusing—and suggestive—arrangement would be largely unknown to the world. For the most part, big anchors go to substantial lengths to keep the rubes clueless about their vast wealth. Just a guess: They dont want you knowing how they live—or where. And they probably dont want you knowing who else might be living there with them.
But just because were kept in the dark—or deliberately misled—about the lives of these major players, that doesnt mean that they dont develop the attitudes sometimes found among their high class. Indeed, its one of the pleasure of Reality Show—watching the way these pampered press poodles obsess about their own (modest) skills, and praise each other for possessing them. Throughout the book, we see the big stars of the millionaire press corps congratulating themselves for achievements so minor that they do invite our ridicule. And we see how highly they sometimes value their own quite modest work. For one example, consider the early passage when Kurtz chronicles Williams pique in 2002. Poor Williams! He was waiting for Brokaw to retire—and just couldnt seem to get no respect.
Poor Williams! According to Kurtz, he was now earning $3 million per year as part of that seven-year contract. He would sit in for Brokaw at Nightly News when Brokaw was on assignment or vacation. But on other days, Brian Williams had to anchor his eponymous cable show, The News with Brian Williams, on the much less important MSNBC. And Williams just couldnt get no respect—from Neil Shapiro, for instance:
Poor Williams! As he saw it, Shapiro had no idea of the vast skills he brought to the studio. And well admit it. From that point on in Reality Show, we couldnt help wondering just what skills Williams might have in mind.
Many pages later, we thought we found out. In this passage which follows, Kurtz reports one of Williams many complaints about the offensive Katie Couric, who by now has made her first broadcast as CBS evening news anchor. As Williams grumbles to himself, we get a sense of the remarkable skills the suburban dad brought to the job:
Williams always knew when to pause—whether the Neal Shapiros of the world were able to see it or not. In yet another moving passage, we see Williams preparing a promotional tease for a Today show segment. The skills required for his job again become quite evident:
But Williams simply never stops battling—and finally, he gets his rhythms right. One wonders if Shapiro had ignored such skills—had taken such skills for granted.
But then, all through Reality Show, we see massively-paid network stars who seem to be extremely impressed with what can only be described, in truth, as their own rather modest achievements. At one point, CBS hires long-time star producer Rick Kaplan to help shape Courics broadcast. Kurtz describes the types of skill that justify these peoples large salaries:
You wonder how the Kaplans can command the big bucks—until Kurtz takes you behind the scenes at their nightly broadcasts. Meanwhile, you come to appreciate the way these stars are willing to fight the big battles. At one point, Kurtz tells us, with perfect straight face, about the tough questions Bob Schieffer was willing to throw at President Bush—at George W. Bush, his longtime personal friend. The interview occurs in January 2006, after Schieffer has taken over as interim replacement for Dan Rather. Its no wonder our Big Major Pols despise these fearless journalists:
With perfect straight face, Kurtz presents that question as one of the high, hard ones Schieffer was willing to throw to Bush—who, of course, was eager to see if he could hit such pitches. That was one of Schieffers tougher questions—though it was cloaked in conversational tones. Elsewhere (page 397), Kaplan mutters Good question, Katie under his breath as Couric poses a question to Bush. That question seems amazingly tame too—but neither Kaplan, nor this books author, show signs of having noticed.
In short, Reality Show is full of exceptionally well-paid people who seem to be inordinately impressed with their cohorts lackluster output. These stars are constantly being praised—except when curmudgeons like Neil Shapiro fail to see the depth of their skill. And this sort of un-reality show can produce predictably pompous attitudes. Consider Williams constant complaining about big dumb-ass Couric.
In fairness, Kurtz assures us that Williams attitude has nothing to do with the money. Williams has married a modest woman, were told. For that reason, he can get by on $10 million a year; it doesnt enter his mind to care when Couric is paid a bigger salary. (Were told this twice, so we wont forget.) But Williams, the guy who came up the hard way, is frequently fuming at Katie. After all, Williams didnt get a seven-figure salary until he was 34 years old, by which time he had spent years knocking around local television. (In New York City, for example.) No wonder hes peeved when Couric is handed an anchor job—without displaying the vast array of skills which he possesses. On location post-Katrina, Williams gives expression to his understandable pique:
There was no easy path to being an anchor? Unless weve badly misread the material, Williams career defines one! But not to Williams! Williams thinks hes done grueling work when he goes up in that cherry-picker, thinking of ways to describe all that seaweed. So its easy to see why the average-Joe anchor was peeved at the thought of Courics ascension. Indeed, the mild mannered suburban dad vents about Couric quite routinely in Reality Show—but his complaints are always well founded. A bit later, the grumbling starts again:
Williams knew that hed seen rivers. The others were accidents; they were just passing through. Later on page 265, we see the man in his daily Gethsemane, writhing about his shows ratings:
And they were also going to see who knew how to pause between items! At any rate, its fairly clear that, at this high level, the high-strung artists of TV news can develop understandable sets of attitudes—the types of attitudes which, seen somewhere else, might be mistaken for excessive self-regard. And that can affect their views of the hired hands, as in the thoroughly understandable case of Williams pique with poor hapless Jerry Reiss.
The tension had been building for months, Kurtz writes at the start of this episode. Reiss was Williams executive producer and a perfectly decent guy. But something didnt seem right to Williams. Uh-oh! Not suburban enough:
Why on earth should Jerry Reiss sleep? As Kurtz continues, we see how deep the problems with Reiss could run:
Again, we see the astounding skill levels required in this high-paid of work. Like Couric not knowing when to pause, Reiss didnt seem to know how to break in. Soon, the tortured average Joe anchor couldnt contain his annoyance:
Tormented by his fear of cold copy, Williams, understandably, lashed out at Reiss. At any rate, by the end of 2006, Reiss had somehow figured out that it was time for him to move on. (According to Kurtz, Reiss heard it through the grapevine: The way you found out that Brian was unhappy with your work was that you would hear it from others on the staff.) But the replacement process dragged on so long that Williams show dropped out of first place in the ratings; by some wholly mysterious process, Reiss ended up getting blamed for the fall in a front-page New York Times news report. Surely, Williams couldnt have been the source; he was now losing to Charlie Gibson, and he didnt care about that at all, since Gibson was so much like himself. At any rate, Reiss was gone soon after that—but not before a bit of major-league groveling:
How ironic! The two men were on the same wave-length at last! But when people of such modest talents are paid huge sums and fawned to so hard, might it be that this style of life affects their values and outlook? And heres the eral question: Might the public occasionally wonder about their values and outlook—if allowed to learn about the Italianate mansions in which it seems they may live?
None of this would matter a bit if Williams did unobjectionable work. But we can recall his bizarre behavior during Campaign 2000—and in that debate on October 30. We can recall the rude, strange way he hosted this years first Dem debate. For these reasons, our ears perked up when Kurtz mentioned Williams apartment in Manhattan. It was something like His Own Private Nantucket when we saw this average-Joe dad hanging with the worlds biggest players.
COMING—PART 4: His own private Nantucket.
ANATOMY OF AN OVERSIGHT: It could be that Katie just doesnt like Brian. Kurtz includes a comical anecdote from their days at NBC:
Oh no! We wont tell you what our sainted mother would have said about that.
SHE TOO IS BRILLIANT: Diane Sawyer is also brilliant—according to her peers in Reality Show. She had one of the fastest minds of anyone he had ever met, an intelligence that operated at almost warp speed, Charlie Gibson allegedly thinks. Its never quite clear why Gibson thinks that—until Kurtz lets him recall their first meeting. The first time he saw her in person, Sawyer was standing in front of him at a news event and taking note with four different colored pens, Kurtz writes (page 218). The woman, apparently, was well organized. Nothing in the book seems to back that up. But then too, no one disputes it.