Brian Williams and the Erosion of Public Discourse
Brian Williams, the long time anchor of NBC Nightly News, the man who replaced Tom Brokaw, the managing editor of NBC’s news division, and the man who led NBC to receive the Peabody Award for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, has recanted a story about taking fire during an Operation Iraqi Freedom helicopter mission. But this is old news. And I don’t mean “the story broke on Thursday” old. Like, really old. The gradual degradation of journalism, modern media, and public discourse in general has been well documented and shockingly foreseen for almost a century.
In 1985, Neil Postman published a short nonfiction work call Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which has, in turn, become required reading in many collegiate critical thinking courses. In the book, Postman discusses how the line between truthful and unbiased journalism and media has been blurred with that of big budget entertainment. Now, decades later, the issue has become more and more prevalent, yet unnervingly unacknowledged. Early in the book, Postman offers us this quote, comparing the differences between the dystopian societies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwell.
But, we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Uh, Oh… This seems vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? Although this is the first time that society has been able to point the collective finger of blame at one individual, this is clearly bigger than Brian Williams, or NBC as a whole.
The first point that we must consider is the fact that this idea of entertaining media is nothing new. Even as far back as the early 1900’s, when radio was widely introduced, people feared that recognition would inhibit the ability to unbiasedly procure the current events occurring across the globe. Celebrity has its temptations, and figures like Edward R. Murrow were some of the first to enjoy some of the benefits of this new system. Hell, even George Clooney made a widely successful film about Murrow decades later. But in the end, what it really comes down to is financial gain. Originally, organizations like NBC, CBS, and ABC were broadcast corporations, dedicated to bringing knowledge to an otherwise uneducated and geographically sheltered audience. Now, with the successful growth of film media and celebrity admiration, these companies have grown into some of the most financially successful and politically sought after commodities the contemporary human generation has ever known. Advertisements, political endorsement and general recognizability have tempted even the most straight-shooting members of the media to relentlessly chase viewership and popularity. Thus, we end up with someone like Brian Williams.
For years, Williams was considered one of the best investigatory journalist of the 21st Century. He covered everything from the multiple wars in the Middle East, to the catastrophe in New Orleans in 2005. This led Williams to the anchor-ship of the most viewed nightly news program in history, multiple defining interviews, and an annual salary of 13 million dollars. Yes, you read that correctly; Brian Williams makes $13,000,000 a year. That in itself should be frightening enough. But, what is most interesting about Brian Williams, and NBC in general, is the fact that as a liberal news agency, they have been widely regarded as more truthful and honest than their conservative, Prince-of-Saudi-Arabia-owned counterpart, FOX News. Clearly, this is another fabrication. Biased journalism knows no political party. However, for years, FOX has been criticized for its inadequate television hosts, sensationalized news broadcasting, and undereducated panels. Yet, its viewership has consistently rivaled that of its left-wing rival, NBC. Regardless of what side of the fence you tend to land on, it’s abundantly clear that the media in general is completely and totally partial.
In my humble opinion, Huxley was, in fact, correct. Our society has been fed “somas” through the medium of entertainment for generations. Pavlov’s conception of conditioning was accurate and applicable to humans as much as it was of dogs craving blood and flesh. But, how can you fight being brainwashed, when being brainwashed is all you have been conditioned to crave? Unfortunately, we may never again be evolved enough to find the answer to that question; that is, unless we can unite as a society, sans politics, religion, and beliefs in general, to fight the erosion of public discourse.
Sources (in order):
Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:
Edward R. Murrow:
Viewership of Nightly News:
Brave New World – “Somas”:
Photo by: Peabody Awards under Creative Commons License.