COMMENTS: Brian Williams is not the Indispensable Man

For those of you who do not watch NBC Nightly News as closely as I do (by which I mean almost the entire population) let me assure you that the suspension of Brian Williams from the anchor desk for six months is not that big a deal as far as the newscast is concerned.

If you watch the evening news, you will see that the important journalistic work is delivered each night by four or five pre-taped, edited packages filed before its first commercial break. These cover the major national and international hard news of the day. They constitute a summary of the most important and consequential developments of the previous 24 hours. The work of reporting, factchecking, interviewing, videography, graphics, writing, editing and presenting is done by correspondents, their producers and their crews.

For all significant intents and purposes, the nightly newscast is a correspondent's medium, not one that belongs to its anchor.

If you look at Williams' role on a typical nightly newscast, you will see that he showcases his special talents -- his smooth delivery, his sardonic understatement, his wry smile, his showcasing of his patriotic, Jersey Boy, blue collar roots -- in the two-minute segment, the so-called Third Block, between the second and third commercial island, some 20 minutes from the top of the newscast, far away from its important business.

So Williams' vaunted celebrity stylings act, as it were, as the dessert course, after the meat-and-potatoes are dispensed with. It is significant that the fib that brought about his downfall -- the grenade in the wrong Chinook helicopter -- was told in the Third Block in one of those Jersey Boy riffs.

To be sure, Williams' name is on the newscast, and in the vernacular, viewers will refer to it by his name -- "I watch Williams, not that guy Pelley" -- rather than by the name of the network. But this phenomenon is a Januslike one: as much as it projects personal attributes that belong to the anchor onto the newscast as a whole, the opposite is also true; the positive appeal, or negative defects, of the newscast as a whole is personified onto the blank slate that is the anchor's image.

It is on cable news that the anchor and content are truly merged. Bill O'Reilly or Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow are truly indispensible to, and inseparable from, the hour-long programs that bear their name.

Traditionally on broadcast news, the importance of the nightly introductory Teleprompter-reading role of the anchor has been a placeholder position for those times when he truly has to play the News Anchor proper. When major stories break (a 9/11 attack, the outbreak of war), or giant set-piece events are staged (such as a State of the Union speech or a Presidential election), that is when his skills kick in: the ability to be facile on live television, to evaluate the importance of events instantly as they arrive, the image of calm in a crisis and concern over calamity.

In the meantime there are two reasons that the anchor reads the Teleprompter each night: to become a familiar and reassuring face in advance of that crisis, and by immersion to acquire a thorough familiarity with the news of the day so that he will be prepared, whatever the source of the crisis might be.

Now comes Williams' suspension -- and a six-month experiment to test whether a celebrity anchor is as dispensable to those newscasts as I believe he is. Although the suspension is unprecedented, the experiment is not. This is its third occurrence and I have been vindicated both times before. CBS News made a bet on the indispensability of the celebrity anchor when it hired the Katie Couric to boost its evening newscast ratings; she did more harm than good. ABC News made the opposite bet when it delinked the role of evening newsreader from lead anchorman when it hired David Muir to replace the celebrity anchor Diane Sawyer; so far Muir has suffered few audience defections, in fact, if anything, he has attracted viewers.

Network nightly newscast audiences are remarkably stable, if gradually aging and declining. Audience size is determined much more by the performance of their lead-in local newscasts than by the identity of the newsreader. And, as said, journalistic content is determined much more by the performance of correspondents and producers than by the newsreader's personality.

If I am right, this is bad news for Brian Williams and the entire industry of agents and aspirants seeking to pocket their share of the network news divisions' diminishing revenues. However, it is not bad news for television audiences, or for the body politic, to the extent that it relies on sound and conscientious journalism from its remaining mainstream media outlets.

And it clearly can be quite good news for Lester Holt.


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