The slow-motion train wreck that has been the Brian Williams RPG attack scandal (RPGate?) came to a head Tuesday night when NBC News announced that Williams will be suspended for six months without pay, at which point he will presumably return (hopefully, my dog Emma will also return from that farm upstate for a long-awaited visit). One of the underrated subplots to this drama has been the absurd, disgraceful way NBC News has handled the story as both news outlet and news source.
Although Williams made his apology on NBC’s air, it would be several days before cable news sister network MSNBC would cover the story, and when it did, viewers were treated to surreal touches like this:
“According to Variety, a person familiar with the story said that NBC News executives had counseled Williams to stop telling the story in public. This is disputed by someone familiar with current NBC News operations.”
This is double-plus-absurd, because for starters, the sourcing and attribution in the Variety article wouldn’t make it past the editor of the James O’Keefe Memorial High School Gazzette (emphasis mine):
What makes Williams’ admission worse, according to one person familiar with the situation, is that he had been counseled in the past by senior NBC News executives to stop telling the story in public. The advice, this person said, was not heeded. One person familiar with current NBC News operations disputed that information.
Those attributions are so weak, they could both literally be used to describe me. Much more glaringly, though, why is Mika Brzezinski reporting on what an anonymous rando says NBC News executives said, instead of asking, oh, I don’t know, an NBC News executive? Or anyone at all connected to the news outlet that she works for? This is akin to Josh Earnest reading out anonymous White House leaks to reporters in a press briefing. It’s absurd and disgraceful.
Since then, MSNBC has covered the story in much the same manner, generating news content and commentary from the same limited set of facts and statements as everyone else. On Tuesday night’s The Rachel Maddow Show, someone finally called them out, and it was Rachel Maddow:
“Here is the awkward part for us. We are MCNBC. The NBC in that means that we operate under the NBC umbrella, and there is a good reason why you see so many faces from NBC News on our air. We’re working partners within the news division. But tonight, even as we’re reporting on this breaking news about the news division of which we are a part, no, NBC News will not make anyone available to discuss this story with us on the air. That may change in days ahead. You would think that if they’re going to talk to anybody about this, we might reasonably get a leg up on getting interviews with any NBC News executives to explain this decision, if only because we’re right down the hall. But so far, no one. I hope in days to come that that might change, but as of yet, we are not talking to NBC News executives about this yet. I live in hope.”
Maddow, as sweetly as she can, is pointing out the absurdity of trying to report on yourself without, essentially, having access to yourself. Right before this clip, Maddow had to endure the humiliation of reading out canned statements from NBC News executives, which is a bit like having your wife deliver the grocery list through a spokesman, and which is still not as embarrassing as reporting your own network’s leak from a third source.
It was incredibly courageous for Rachel to call them out as she did, but I would encourage her to take it a step further, and announce that until NBC News ends its disgraceful blackout, she will refuse to read out their PR flackery. News organizations depend on, and rightly insist on, transparency. There is no excuse for NBC News not to make anyone, not an executive, or any editorial staff, or even a spokesperson, available to their own news personnel.
This isn’t unique to this story, or to NBC News, but it is one of the more egregious examples of a news outlet obstructing the news when they are the subject of the news. It is most prevalent in TV news. In covering that beat for the last five years or so, I’ve discovered that every TV news outlet, to some degree, engages in this sort of message management around their own personalities. Without naming and shaming, I will say that CNN and CBS have been the most responsive in this regard, but all of them throw up roadblocks to some extent.
That’s in mild contrast to print outlets, whose reporters and editors are much freer to make their own judgments about when and to whom they’ll speak, but for a profession that prizes transparency, they could all use to improve. Journalists aren’t supposed to want to become the story, but when they do, they ought to still behave like journalists, and make themselves, and their colleagues, available to face questions.