Category Archives: Comment

The Real Reason Brian Williams is Toast

Brian Wlliams nightly newsNBC anchor Brian Williams may have survived lying about his war record in Iraq, if it was simply an offhand remark to David Letterman. News anchors are habitual blow-hards who often inflate their stories to help create their own self-myth. Telling a little white lie on a talk show is almost expected, part of the job of promoting the nightly news.

If it was nothing more than a talk show gaffe, Williams could have shrugged off the revelation that he really wasn’t flying in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War. He might have tossed it aside as simply a late night slip, one of those things that comes out at the wrong moment. A quick apology, a few mea culpas, some hearty laughs about bad memory, and Williams would be back on the air.

But as soon as he incorporated his little white lie into a news story, he was toast. Reporting the incident on air as actual news separated Williams’ hubris from the realm of stupid party boasts. He crossed the most sacred of journalism lines and now he must face the consequences.

There is no way Williams “misremembered” the helicopter story. You don’t forget that you were actually in the helicopter that was not hit by a rocket, instead of the one that was actually hit. We’re not talking about an event from ancient days; it was 11 years ago. Some newsmen can remember what they had for breakfast 11 years ago. There is no quick explanation for why Williams thought he was in the helicopter forced down in the desert, unless he is delusional in a very dark manner. If Williams was willing to fudge the truth on the Iraq story, then it is completely reasonable to question what else he fudged over the years.

Yet, before we burn him at the stake of the righteous, let’s keep in mind he was a news anchor and news anchors are typically creations of illusion and truth stretching. They are presented as serious news personnel, toughened reporters who can be trusted with your news. But most anchors are nothing more than news readers, capable of looking good on camera and enunciating with flair. They provide a hint of a frown at the right time; maybe the rise of an eyebrow. Their journalism is relegated to punching up their scripts and standing where the producer tells them to stand.

The networks spend millions creating images for these anchors, which may have little connection to reality. Anchors don’t need to be reputable reporters, but they do need to be able to act like one.  “The remarkable thing is not that [Williams’] war exaggerations have been found out, but that he’s managed so confidently to pull off the network anchor role for so long,” Michael Wolff wrote in the Hollywood Reporter.

“He is America’s most prominent newsman but never has reported the news. He is the managing editor of a news organization, once among the largest in the country, that has been stripped down to the barest bones. He has assumed the mantle of network anchorman, as though it is a job that still commands the greatest stature and gravitas, but which, everyone understands, is mere relic now. He gamely continues the conceit that the network news broadcast is one of the primary sources of news for most Americans — at best a nostalgic, if not comical, notion.”

Williams’ main role was as “an in-house, all-purpose corporate face and moderator,” for the corporate owner of the network, Wolff notes.

As a corporate spokesman, Williams could have overcome the fallout from his lie about his war experiences. Anchors are all built on little white lies. But there is no way NBC can present him as its icon of credibility and trust after he so clearly lied in a news story. No amount of makeup or snappy commercial spots will clean up that image.

Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.

Hollywood Foreign Press Association Deserves Respect

Golden_Globe_Awards_signsIt’s easy to make fun of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the notoriously rag tag group of journalists behind the Golden Globe awards. Their awards have been elevated to Oscar minor league status, even though it often seems like the voters are nothing more than a group of Euro fan boys, voting for their favorite stars.

As an organization, the HFPA is often mocked for its scruffy membership, which for many years hovered around 100 writers of mostly questionable backgrounds. In many cases, the writers were part-timers who seemed to spend most of their time at junkets, sucking down free food and gifts from the studios. Publicists were known to behave like squealing porn stars at the sight of a gaggle of drunk French cinema essayists.

But maybe that’s changing. And maybe it’s time to reconsider the ol’ HFPA jokes.

By honoring “Boyhood” this year, Richard Linklater’s simple story of a family growing up together, the Foreign Press Association has provided a real service to the industry. They have given credit to a worthy film, a piece of art, which will has been nominated for several Oscars, but more than likely will be largely ignored at the ceremony.

In this role, the Golden Globes and the HFPA’s growing legitimacy can help turn the spotlight to different types of pictures, even giving small films the coveted post-award sales bump. A Globe is not an Oscar, not even close. And, sure, the Golden Globes have had their embarrassments. (See: Pia Zadora). But the Oscars have made their share of bonehead choices, too. (See: Renee Zellweger, “Cold Mountain”; “Rocky” beating “Taxi Driver”)

The Oscars get it wrong over and over again, just in a different way than the Globes. The Academy’s bias toward schmaltzy Holocaust films and lovable elder statesman trumps logic year-after-year, and they have just as many fan boy favorites as the derelict Globes. The Oscars are just as clubby as the Golden Globes, it’s just an older and richer club.

The stuffy Academy is famous for giving a begrudging nod to small and quirky films, but withholding the real honors. This could be a completely wrong, but the Academy is unlikely to share the love with Linklater. He largely works out of Austin and while he is beloved, he doesn’t play the Hollywood game in the same way. And “Boyhood” was a subtle, moving work that played with film-making – elements the Academy rarely rewards. The Academy members prefer message films like “12 Years a Slave,” last year’s Best Picture winner, which was a fine studio production, hitting all the right notes.

The Academy could learn something from the grungy Foreign Press Association. Every once in a while it is OK to pay tribute to art, to forsake the model and give the statue to someone who is not targeting the multiplexes in quite the same way. The Golden Globes succeed in ways that should make the Oscars jealous. The Globes telecast is actually fun, capturing the glamour of Hollywood, without the pretense and arrogance of the Oscars.

By honoring “Boyhood,” the Foreign Press Association has taken control of the high ground this year, and we’ll soon learn where the Academy stands when it chooses its Best Picture.

Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.

Sony Provides Textbook Case on Bad Crisis Management

SonyAs we all wallow in the juicy goodness of Sony’s leaked e-mails and contemplate the potential for a Seth Rogen film to spark global nuclear conflict, let’s take a moment to focus on what might be the worst crisis management campaign in history.

Faced with an unprecedented calamity, the executives of one of the world’s most powerful media companies flopped around like speared salmon, making things worse at every step.

From the start, Sony has made almost every wrong move possible. They had no response to how and why the organization was vulnerable to attack, allowing the story to settle into the gleeful schadenfreude of the leaked e-mails, which generally reveal Sony executives as crude and vaguely racist misogynists. Instead of a rapid response move to emphasize that Sony was the victim of a horrendous terrorist attack, the story settled on the relative dickishness of various Sony executives.

With reams of data and e-mails already floating around the Internet, Sony then decided to threaten media organizations and try to get them to stop publishing the information, a laughable exercise. Famed attorney David Boies was sent out to try to corral the oiled pig. More than one observer noted the irony — at the same time Sony was defending its right to release a movie, the studio was trying to suppress news organizations’ free speech. Sony apparently was surprised to discover that media companies have their own attorneys, who were well-versed in these sort of cases.

Responding like a raccoon quivering in a corner, Sony then decided not to release the film, leading to a public shaming by the President of the United States. And that instantly sparked 24-hour coverage portraying Sony execs as wimps and appeasers. The company responded by trying to blame theater operators, their partners, a cheap shot the operators probably won’t soon forget. Perhaps even more worrisome for Sony, the creative community lined up to express their outrage, something no studio can afford.

As they struggled to gain their footing and explain the company’s dilemma, they only dug a deeper hole. CEO Michael Lynton went on Fareed Zakari’s show looking like he just got out of the shower. His responses were defensive and weak, as he tried to explain why Sony had no choice but to capitulate to the North Korean oppressors, or the theater operators, whichever you believe are more horrible.

At this point, Sony was moving into uncharted waters. Very few companies hit this level of self-destructive horror. Perhaps management realized it, so they immediately searched for ways to release the film, to show the world it was, in fact, a company with cojones.

The result was the lukewarm announcement to release this very important film in independent theaters, a choice that was apparently unavailable a few days earlier. And then there was the hurried Christmas Eve announcement that yet another choice had been discovered – a digital release, which comes across as a desperate attempt to make a few bucks off the controversy, while take yet another swipe at their theater operator friends.

It’s too late. Not only will no one forget Sony’s early capitulation, the half-assed release will certainly sap any potential opportunity to make a splash with the film down the road. The digital release ensures that Sony shareholders will see little return from this debacle.

Heads are going to roll, no doubt. Sony management allowed the hacker attack to escalate into an international crisis — all over a silly movie about assassinating the dictator of North Korea, a circumstance that could have been averted by simply calling the country, say, East Kortea, instead.

Everyone would have still gotten the joke. Instead, Sony is the joke.

Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world celebrity journalism.

The ‘Colbert Bump’ Impact on Celebrity Mocking

Colbert_SquareWith the demise of “The Colbert Report,” TV has lost its best mocker. There are better interviewers and funnier sketch artists, but nobody mocked better than Stephen Colbert, the character, in full stride. His ability to walk the thin line between parody and cruelty was unmatched, and may never be equaled.

That’s a difficult to line to walk. He was pompous, overtly racist and demeaning of everyone. And yet it was impossible not to laugh and enjoy the mocking, even if it may hit close to home. The only TV character to come close to the same line was maybe Archie Bunker, Carroll O’Connor’s armchair Nixonian, who put a face to a generation of bigots.

In an age when every cable pundit sneers at their opposition, Colbert made it fun to mock again, returning satire and humor to a humorless industry. In the process, Colbert separated the world into people who got the joke and those that were the joke.

Making fun of the famous came with a sophisticated edge for Colbert. He allowed us to laugh at the buffoonery of their day to day antics. Blowhards were always his favorite targets. He skewered the pompous. But managed to switch to a gentle smile when dealing with those that were simply stupid.

In many ways, Colbert was far more subversive than Jon Stewart, who works from the traditional fake news format. Colbert did it from within, by becoming one of them, using the punditocracy’s own words, mannerisms and zealous self-importance to undermine their pedestal. He embraced their talking points and made them his own. We all could recognize the thread of reality in Stephen Colbert, the character.

Colbert will go down in history for injecting that character into the political dialogue, blurring the lines between a fictional asshole TV pundit and the assholes on TV every day. But he went further, taking on the silliness of celebrity and the personal shallowness that invades the rich and powerful. Much like Lisa Kudrow’s self-absorbed character in “Comeback,” his personal idiosyncrasy’s and view of daily life were a clear window into the shallowness of celebrity and fame obsession, a vivid profile of people convinced of their entitlement.

More than any other comedian, Colbert provided a daily caricature of the corrupting influence of fame. Stephen Colbert, the character, was convinced of the righteousness of his own place in the world, even though he did not have a single definable skill. It didn’t matter. He was famous. And fame was a lifetime gold stamp to get in front of the line. That’s just the way it is, get over it, Stephen Colbert explained night after night.

Political satire will go on, and new voices will emerge, but nobody will hit the same note as Colbert, that pitch-perfect mock.

Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many other publications. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.