Cultural anchors and the illusion that was Brian Williams

Unknown-2So much is changing. The digital, artisanal, and cultural revolutions, all of these transform us from the inside out.  But we have our facades and as the world gets more chaotic, we treasure them more and more. They may merely give the illusion of continuity and stability, but at this point we’ll take it.  We really like our illusions.

Which brings me to Michael Wolff’s characteristically penetrating piece on Brian Williams.   Wolff says there is something terribly old fashioned about the idea of the network anchor and a news broadcast that still matters as the primary source of news.  Wolff sees through the illusion. The mystery, he says, is that Williams managed to live the lie for so long.

This is Wolff doing what he does so well, using his formidable smarts and knowledge of media to keep an eye on the new realities that the rest of us tend to visit episodically.  We will feel the truth of one of these realities…until we move on to contemplate some other reality.  What we don’t do is let many realities all in at once.  And, really, who can blame us.  Taking stock of all our changing realities is actually pretty terrifying. I try it from time to time and spend the remainder of the day with my head between my knees, taking deep breaths. It doesn’t help at all.

Let me, if I may, say something parenthetically.  (Perhaps the most neglected intellectual practices these days is precisely this ability to entertain many realities at once.  Everyone has their competence and they may talk about being T shaped {good at one thing with a certain breadth above].  But in fact most of us build the I out of I. And it’s not hard to see why this intellectual practice should be in short supply.  We have largely abandoned or corrupted the liberal arts that were our best hope of mastering it.)

Wolff works his magic, but he comes to what I think might be the wrong conclusion.  He suggests that Williams’ scandal prevents us from seeing that Williams was, and I do not mean to be unflattering, a kind of Zombie. The role, the dignity and gravitas, all of these were effectively for show, because anchors don’t anchor anymore.   We are inclined to think Williams just lost his job. It is more useful to see that he never had one. The job has disappeared.

I think this might be the wrong conclusion, though it is an excellent one to entertain and I promise to make it one of my possible truths.  The right conclusion?  That as the world lets in more commotion, we will prize our figureheads.  By this calculation, news celebrities matter more even when they matter less.   In point of fact, they don’t “anchor” but they do smooth.  And we like our reality smoothed.

I think the real trouble here is Williams himself.  He got grander and grander.  I wrote something for PFSK that took issue with the way he dared presume to scold new media for not being real media.  “No,” I thought, “this really is too dumb.”  And then there was that promo he did for someone or something in which he went grandly on and on about the importance of “good human hands.”  In my household, you only need to hint at this phrase to get a big laugh.

Williams would not be the first celebrity to come to believe in his own majesty. It is almost impossible to be at the center of a celebrity culture and not have this go straight to your head. After all, he is constantly surrounded by people eager to bask in his reflected glory (even if they have to invent it first).

My point here is that we do still want to have “anchors” and again that they will matter more precisely they matter less.  The problem is that we need to head into the cultural laboratory and figure out who will fill this role.  Not Williams.  That much is clear.  We don’t want grand, sententious, self aggrandizing. That was then.

Happily for our laboratory, the world is its own laboratory.  There are lots of experiments running.  There are several people from whom we might cobble together to a perfect “anchor.”  A perfect anchor should be some combination of the qualities of Jon Stewart. Anthony Bourdain, Gayle King and …  Reader, help out.  Reader, sing out.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself thinking, “What about Michael Wolff?”

2 thoughts on “Cultural anchors and the illusion that was Brian Williams”

  1. I don’t know who to invoke in the US context – but in the UK, from the golden years of election night coverage – Peter Snow – throw in a dash of Hans Rosling perhaps – we’re looking for the qualities Nate Silver, but camera friendly…

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