Today’s New York Times contains four articles on Brian Williams’ propensity to lie about his personal involvement in ongoing news stories such as the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina: two in the business section, one in the science pages and an opinion column by David Brooks. The Times covers multiple aspects of the story: the potential financial impact on NBC, the plunge in Williams’ “trustworthiness” rating, the easy corruption of memory by lies and Brooks’ opinion that Williams should not be forced to resign (BTW, Brooks proffered no such defense for Dan Rather after Rather’s producer forgot to fact-check a forged document in 2004).
The Times represents a microcosm of what’s happening in media land: a full-scale feeding frenzy that includes some 53.6 million stories about Williams’ mendacity identified by Google News. Compare that total to the mere 116,000 stories about the attempt by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to destroy public sector unions or the just under 6 million stories about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s peevish and counterproductive plans to give a speech about Iran to the U.S. Congress. The Williams lies are attracting more coverage than even Alabama’s almost statewide defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court order to allow people of the same sex to marry in a civil ceremony, which racks up some 43 million stories on Google News. Note dear readers that when you do a Google News search on these topics you may come up with different figures, since the counts are not static.
I note these numbers not to make the point that celebrity news tends to trump real news. Anyone who peruses Internet news portals knows that already. I am merely demonstrating how big the news of Williams’ lies has become—and yet it’s a very old story. Suspicions that the NBC anchor didn’t encounter enemy fire and did not really find a body floating past his 5-star hotel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been around for a long time, but the news media chose not to cover them.
Just like the media determined for years that Bill Cosby’s predilection for drugging and raping women was not of interest to the American public. At the peak of the feeding frenzy a few months back, when it seemed as if every day a different woman was coming forth (heroically, since it stirred up bad memories in each, plus Cosby has a lot of money and clout to discredit the victims), several journalists admitted that they participated in a cover-up of decades-long rumors and accusations against Cosby. The media, perhaps too enamored by this folk hero, collectively refused to follow the story.
Until they did.
The Jerry Sandusky scandal unfolded in a similar way. The only way to describe the media coverage of an aborted investigation of Sandusky for pederasty more than 10 years before the big story broke is “media blackout.”
We know why the news media finally picks up on these scandals. The story becomes too big to ignore or the discussion on social media sites becomes too intense. The big question is why does it take so long for the media to get around to reporting these scandals?
I think we get an inkling of an answer when we contrast the media’s slowness to cover Williams, Cosby and Sandusky with the way it jumped into the fray when it came to accusations against Hillary Clinton—all false—in the Benghazi debacle or accusations—again, false—that John Kerry did not display heroism under fire during the Viet Nam War.
Let’s face it: the mainstream news media operates from a slightly right of center position and looks rightward. It defends those who reflect this point of view, and surely Williams, Cosby and Sandusky all do so in their own right: Williams delivers a right-of-center version of the news. Cosby’s character of Cliff Huxtable represents the American ideal of upper middle class consumerism, and Cosby himself has tended to blame his fellow African-Americans for their lack of social mobility. And what could be more American than Penn State football—except maybe an image of SUVs packed with unneeded purchases tooling home from a mall.
Some will question my examples, since Clinton and Kerry are both political figures, whereas Williams, Cosby and Sandusky are not, but consider these arguments:
The mass media—controlled by the wealthy and ultra-wealthy—tend to look rightward, and are therefore more likely to publish unsubstantiated rumors about left-looking centrists than about conservatives. For example, for years no one published the rumors that Bush I had a love nest; and the media positively buried the incredible amount of evidence that Bush II shirked his National Guard duty. The politician most protected by the mainstream news media today may be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is tied to a long series of scandals involving self-dealing and cronyism, and yet is routinely touted as having presidential timber. I predict that a waterfall of reporting of Christie scandals—let’s call it the Christie moment—will begin just as soon as he starts to represent a serious challenge to Jeb Bush, the mainstream media’s choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
To current practitioners of mainstream journalism, there is absolutely no difference between an elected official, a news anchor or a football coach. They’re all celebrities and are all treated like celebrities. The media pump up the celebrities they like and tear down those they don’t like. And behind the reasons for liking and not liking are always subtle ideological reasons.