We don't need Walter Cronkite

Brian Williams was an anachronism even before his memory problems

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If you’ve been following the Brian Williams story over the past few days, you know that the formerly respected NBC News anchor was caught in a lie recently: a rather large one, in which he has repeatedly talked about being in a U.S. Army helicopter when it got shot down during the Iraq war in 2003, something that apparently never happened. This has sparked much debate in media circles about whether Williams has lost — or deserves to lose — his place at the peak of American journalism. But he lost that place a long time ago.

When Williams took over as NBC News anchor in 2004, he was widely seen as one of the modern successors to legendary TV newsman Walter Cronkite, and in fact by 2010 some were arguing that Williams was the country’s premier TV anchor, and had earned the trust of millions. Marketwatch columnist Jon Friedman said that despite the rise of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle, Williams remained relevant and was the “Walter Cronkite of the 21st century.”

In reality, of course, the NBC anchor and other lesser-known TV personalities had already lost a lot of their god-like image even by 2010, and they have lost even more since. Not because of personal peccadilloes or false memories like the one Williams is accused of manufacturing, but because there are so many other sources of real-time news available now — just as we no longer have to rely on one or two newspapers, we no longer have to look to a single anchorman to be the “voice of the people” or to filter news events for us.

Anchormen everywhere

I tried to make the same point when Walt Mossberg left the Wall Street Journal in order to continue running what became Re/code with Kara Swisher (which switched from being owned by the WSJ to being owned by NBC). “Who is going to be “the next Walt Mossberg?” people asked. The short answer is no one — or rather, everyone. That position no longer exists.


If I want to find out what’s really happening in Iraq or anywhere else, I and many others are going to look to dozens or even hundreds of different news sources, including the videos and photos and other social-media reports of people who are directly involved — or at least more involved than a TV anchorman who flies into the country and stays at the Hilton, so he can do a news report in front of a palm tree with a flak jacket on.

Venrock partner and media investor David Pakman made a related point in a recent blog post entitled “Brian Williams and Abundance Vs. Scarcity in Media,” about the Williams’ scandal and how it might affect NBC: In effect, he said, NBC is being hoisted by its own petard, because it put so much of its faith (and money) into a single individual as the face of its news brand. That kind of approach might have made sense when media was scarce, he says, but it no longer works when trusted news sources are everywhere.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”NBC chose, in a scarcity-based media world, to build their entire news brand around him. And now he has significantly tarnished this brand. This will have a real economic effect on NBC as a result. Brands built in the age of scarcity take significant risks when they use celebrities (or any one individual) to act as a proxy for their products.”[/blockquote]

Maybe Williams will come out of this incident looking a bit more humble — a bit more human, a little more flawed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, while many criticize the internet and the social web for their flaws when it comes to accurate reporting of the news, you could argue we were actually worse off when a single individual like Brian Williams or Walter Cronkite — or even the New York Times — was seen as infallible.

21 Responses to “Brian Williams was an anachronism even before his memory problems”

  1. Steve Dallas

    Another in a long line of articles championing mediocrity in reporting. In a sea of bloggers with unknown credibility and rabid partisan views, the next Walter Cronkite is needed more than ever.

    • I agree completely. Another article on this site reported that a lot of people don’t care whether a news item is true or not, it still goes viral. So you are absolutely right, the age of Internet makes a Walter Cronkite paramount. I have lived and breathed the tech world for years, but I still prefer a Cronkite and a Brian Williams even though he was caught in a lie trying to make himself look good. His crime is not that serious, as my take is, most people have doctored a story or two to make themselves look good. His lie was more of a personal blemish, than a professional failure.

  2. ishekhar

    its obvious that the folks commenting on this article either dont’ like Williams and don’t just watch news.

    its like judging a product without ever seeing one.

    This is a silly argument over one incident and it will be sad to see an anchor like Brian Williams go away because of a silly mistake and the hype caused by those who didnt’ like him to start with.

  3. Matt Liotta

    This whole thing is silly. Brian Williams just reads a teleprompter. I don’t watch the Nightly News or trust its content because of him. I find it just as informative when Lester Holt, Ann Curry, Kate Snow, Savannah Guthrie, Tamron Hall, Harry Smith, Jenna Wolfe, Erica Hill, Hoda Kotb, Natalie Morales, Jenna Bush Hager, Campbell Brown, David Gregory, Carl Quintanilla, Amy Robach, or John Seigenthaler read the teleprompter.

  4. henry harmon

    It does my heart good to see a few here commenting actually see through the secular progressive leftist bias. These people are a big part of why we are where we are as a country. That includes the present administration. MSNBC; NBC; CNN; ABC; CBS; NY Times; and many more are all of the same mole. They lie by omission as well. distort and by other means. It’s amazing that as many believe this perversion as there is.

  5. OhGrowUp . . .

    In the first paragraph you “misremembered” something so recent maybe you should be fired. It was not that the chopper was show down, but was just hit by an RPG. And as it turns out the one he was in was not the one hit by the RPG, but was a following one hit by small arms fire. That is the gist of the controversy. Have you ever been a war zone? Thought not. And you “misremembered” this so recent situation it in a worse manner than Mr. Williams. Or are you over embellishing this as he is accused of doing to further your personal point/career/15 minutes? If he should go, you should be fired too.

  6. Anonymous

    Mr. Ingram,

    You state in the first paragraph of your article that Mr. Williams “repeatedly” “talked . . . about being in a U.S. Army helicopter when it got shot down during the Iraq war in 2003.” But I don’t see that you or the sources you cite identify more than one incident in which he did so. Rather, the primary material in the Talking Points Memo article you link to identifies just one recent incident in which Mr. Williams claims to have been in the helicopter that was shot at; in the other reports from Mr. Williams, he admits to having been in a different helicopter (albeit with some odd ambiguity about how far away his helicopter was from the one that was shot at).

    I respectfully suggest that you delete the word “repeatedly” from the first paragraph of your article, or cite additional sources to support your claim.

    In addition, your characterization of Mr. Williams as having been accused of “manufactur[ing]” the story is too strong for what you have to support it. The Washington Post article you cite merely attempts to show how Mr. Williams might have mis-remembered the incident. Your word–“manufactured”–on the other hand, implies that Mr. Williams mis-told the story intentionally. You are, of course, free to conclude that Mr. Williams acted intentionally based on whatever evidence you feel sufficient to support that conclusion (and I would be interested to hear what that is). But I suggest that you cannot attribute that conclusion to the Washington Post article you cite.

  7. Merrill Brown

    It is correct Matthew that a big organization betting too much on one person makes no sense in today’s environment. And you’re right that our dependency as consumers should be on multiple sources. TV news is however extremely important to millions of people. It is a mistake to do anything to dismiss the big networks and not work to encourage change. TV news hasn’t been disrupted.

    • I’m going to disagree with you, Merrill — not surprisingly perhaps. I agree that millions of people watch TV news, but that number is dropping steadily, and the age of those watching is rising steadily. The industry has been and is being disrupted, and the sooner TV networks realize it and try to get out in front of it the better off they will be.

  8. There are no infallible sources, never have been.

    There are common procedures in Journalism that help insure accuracy and integrity of the news. Those who practice these methods carefully and over time provide accurate stories become reliable sources (for a time).

    All of the reliable sources on the net at this time are print media news bureaus like NYT, Washington Post, LAT, and a few others.

    No staff reliable sources like a net based Izzy Stone simply don’t exist.

  9. Williams certainly made a bad mistake and now he’s paying for it. As Shawn points out above, anchors are basically intelligent teleprompter readers who know how to ad-lib. While it is a stretch to feel betrayed by a newsreader, this was still a mistake made by someone out of vanity, and in a news operation, he should know better. I don’t agree that broadcast newspeople are anachronistic though; I consider Anderson Cooper to be Cronkite of the day — the coincidentally white hair suggesting authority aside, he is a very smart guy whose producers pull in relevant guests quickly and he conducts very intelligent discussions of the events and issues as they happen. He never purports to be the honking voice of authority and presents what his news organization knows with a humility that seems befitting in this age of uber-information overload. He’s basically the modern anchor, someone without the blowhard characteristics, and able to integrate as many information streams as possible in the broadcast moment. As for Williams, a lot of people turn to him; I wish in this case he would make his mea culpas, let’s just forgive the guy for a mistake, he’ll move on and certainly won’t do that again. Would be great if for once we could not eat our former idols in public.

  10. The key here is “trust”. It could be a major news organization, a consumer products company (Johnson and Johnson with the Advil tampering incident), a political candidate (take your pick, or some obscure blogger, if you don’t have the trust of your users/customers/readers/viewers, you don’t have anything. In the case of news, I don’t have time to read hundreds of sources or assess each one’s trustworthiness. I want a few good curators, aggregators, analysts so that I can know what I need to know and have confidence that I am getting the straight story. The news anchor may be an anachronism but the news organization definitely is not.

  11. Shawn Behnam

    Let’s not forget that a news anchor’s job is to read a teleprompter. They are literally hired readers. We should rid ourselves of the notion of depending on a single person to deliver the news since it is a production involving hundreds if not thousands of people.

  12. Great coverage and insight, I think of all the crazy lying going on and Brian got caught up.

    “Americans, I fabricated some facts in order to see if your on your toes, because Liars season has been open and it’s going to be Much worse. yes election time.
    So stick with me ‘seekers of truth cause thats where I going. – Brian

  13. g2-9ed9acc685824c6663c51c5b093476cc

    To add to the irony: Cronkite’s second most famous act – the first was announcing JFK’s assassination – was his lying through his mustache about the U.S. “losing” the Tet Offensive in the early days of the Vietnam war.

    In fact the U.S. had smashed the Vietcong badly and they were reeling. Had Cronkite just reported the news rather than his Left-sympathetic spin, the outcome of that war would have been quite different.

    But hearing “America’s newsman” intoning VC propaganda disheartened American citizens and morale never recovered.

    At least Williams lied about something inconsequential. And after all, he’s a member of the mainstream media. Being a self-important, bold-faced liar is part of the job description.

    • To City News

      I followed the Vietnam war extensively. My dad was a Conkrite fan. I finally kept tabs on his nightly (body count was used to prove to people like you that the US was “winning”). He droned on each night the numbers fed him by the military and safely ensconced politicos. He would prattle on with his “voice of god”, 4,329 North Vietnamese kill-ed, 2,947 Vietcong Ki-lled, 300 South Vietnamese killed and sev-un Americans killed.. I pointed out to my dad that in a year we had pretty much wiped out the population of North Vietnam and a solid portion of South Vietnam through the body counts of the Vietcong. Walter read his news like that for years the slaughter of American youth continued.

      The wing nut theory that the truth is some kind of a left wing plot and the news nerds repeating lies to assuage the right wing death babies is the reason we got duped into the Iraq war. Simple fact no plot.

      • Canned Heat

        Another Armchair Historians. Giap, admitted after the war, that Tet was an unmitigated military disaster. The lull for the following two years was due, in no small part to Tet destroying Viet Cong offensive capacity. Giap further acknowledged that had the US pressed a counter offensive, the Communists would have been on the brink of collapse. And, finally, Giap was heartened by the US press coverage that Tet was a Viet Cong victory, and mused further that although Tet had been a military debacle, it succeeded, inadvertently, because the US Press helped turn the tide of public perception.
        Your bean-counting “in one year” claim is based on what – I mean besides a Brian Williams-like “misremembering” facts? Go back to bean counting, genius.