By now everyone knows about his transgressions. If even only some of the reports are true, Brian Williams is a serial embellisher, a self-aggrandizing fabulist.
No doubt everyone knows somebody like this, and if you don’t it’s probably because you’re that guy. But Williams’ case is special. This isn’t some sad Willy Loman at the end of the bar who needs to invent impressive stories about himself. If anything, he needed to not tell such stories, given that he reportedly makes more than $10 million a year to be a trusted name in news.
Yet he couldn’t stop himself.
“To walk down a street with an anchor is to be stunned both by how many people recognize them and how many viewers call out to them about specific stories,” writes Ken Auletta, The New Yorker’s media critic. “There’s a respectful familiarity different from the awe displayed to Hollywood celebrities. The anchor is treated as the citizen’s trusted guide to the news. As a result, they can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God.”
I have no doubt that’s true. But I am also certain that Williams is hearing only from the people who see him as their trusted guide to the news, and that can be very deceptive.
If Kathy Griffin is the quintessential D-list celebrity, then I’m probably somewhere south of Z. But I do get recognized at airports and restaurants from time to time, mostly because of my stints on Fox News. A couple dozen times a year, someone will come up and compliment me. (Or, they’ll compliment The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, thinking I’m him.)
But you know what virtually never happens? Someone coming up to me to tell me how much they hated my column, my comments, my book, my face, or my existence.
Now, all you have to do is peek at the comment thread on this column to know that such people exist. Some mornings my inbox is like the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie; one look inside will melt your face. Yet almost none of these people ever say anything to me personally. If I didn’t know better — and believe me, I do — I might get a pretty skewed impression of what “the public” thinks of me.
So I can only imagine what it must be like for truly famous people, who live in Olympian redoubts, protected from criticism, among people with a professional interest in their divinity.
I recently talked to a donor close to Mitt Romney. He said that one of the reasons Romney briefly flirted with a third run for the White House is that he spent the last two years hearing from fans telling him he should run again. They’d come up to him at airports and parties and say only flattering and encouraging things. It’s easy to imagine how misleading that could be. No one was going to run up to Romney and say, “Don’t even think of running again.” It was only when he actually tested the sincerity of the flattery that he discovered he was getting a false market signal.
And that’s Mitt Romney, a vastly more controversial figure. Until this story broke, Williams was an unobtrusive news-reading mannequin who occasionally broke character to tell jokes — and fake tales of valor — on late-night talk shows. Perhaps he told these stories because, deep down, he knew he was a false idol. Or maybe not.
But it is instructive to watch Williams’s fellow media Olympians rally to his defense. They have an investment in a system that rewards celebrity so handsomely — and not just financially. They are the last beneficiaries of the Old Order, when nightly news anchors were cultivated to be “the voice of God,” as insiders at CBS used to call the position.
Those days are almost gone. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 27 percent of respondents could correctly identify Williams from his photograph, and only 3 percent could say what he did for a living. Three percent thought he was Tom Brokaw, and 2 percent thought he was Joe Biden.
Thanks to social media — which was Williams’s undoing (and Dan Rather’s) — we are living in the twilight of the idols. But, as always, the last people to let go of the old gods are their loyal priests.
— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2015 Tribune Content Agency, LLC