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Uncle Don and Uncle Brian : Thoughts on Brian Williams

For some reason the strange saga of Brian Williams reminds me of another equally bizarre story concerning Uncle Don, who ran a popular radio show for kids on WOR in New York when I was a pre-schooler in the distant past.

I listened to Uncle Don religiously in those days. It was every mother’s choice of wholesome entertainment for kids circa 1930’s and my mom was no exception. Uncle Don sang songs and opened his program with a warm and cozy little ditty that went like this:

“This is Your Uncle Don. Hello nephews, nieces too,
Mothers and daddies, how are you?
This is Uncle Don all set to go,
With a meeting on the ra-di-o!”

Okay, so I had to google the exact words, but heck it’s been eight decades since I heard that tune. I do remember his cuddly voice. He would sing cute songs and announce kids’ birthdays; listening to Uncle Don was a standard routine for children about five or six.

What happened or did not happen to Uncle Don was this: One day in the mid-1930’s when his program was near the end, he spoke the following words into an open mike. “This should hold the little bastards.”

As the story goes, after that alleged remark, Uncle Don’s credibility went down the drain. Thousands of angry letters were supposedly sent to the station and according to apocryphal legend Uncle Don was summarily dismissed never to be heard from again. I always believed that story, but my recent sortie into google discredits it as one of those weird anecdotes that passes for truth over time.

Nevertheless, there is a lesson in it. For a guy who runs a kids show to display contempt for his audience is an unforgivable offense. Kids are very sensitive to deceit. The Brian Williams story follows along a similar path: For an allegedly respected newscaster to show contempt for his believing audience by offering self-aggrandizing lies is monstrously unforgivable. Credibility is his stock in trade.

Worse, he is operating in an electronic environment where there is little curation, that is chest deep in bullshit, false claims, self-serving propaganda, blatant bias and a Niagara of lies and deception. NBC has spent decades and much treasure promoting the integrity of its news program. It had no other choice than to excise Williams from its lineup. In my opinion, Brian’s so called six month suspension is likely to last forever.

Not that NBC is without sin. In its stable of owned outlets it offers cable and other internet sites that pursue an acknowledged biased line replete with the usual hurly burly of blather designed to pursue a specific agenda. Nevertheless in its proud ethically sacrosanct flagship news program it cannot maintain its integrity if its chief disseminator is an exposed liar.

Gone are the days when there were only three major on air networks who proudly competed for eyeballs by assuring the public that their news was painstakingly accurate, honest, and believable.

To be fair, those three surviving networks continue to try valiantly to maintain the culture of integrity, honesty, and neutrality that once gave heft to on air names like Murrow, Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite and many, many others. Given the current menu of news outlets spawned by cable and the internet, one has to acknowledge their efforts to maintain that sterling tradition. Brian Williams, like Dan Rather before him, became spoilers of that effort and had to be eliminated. On balance one gives these old time networks a passing grade on their efforts, even as they work with a vastly diminished worldwide network of reporters.

The truth, and I use the “t” word with great trepidation, is that “just the facts” journalism seems to have completely vanished. The proliferating networks of cable news and internet news gatherers have opted, whether for profit or conviction, to take sides, making it increasingly difficult to get at the unvarnished no spin facts.

I’m not knocking their choices. In a passionately divided world they’re trying to get a piece of the money pie and their bias is blatant and up front. Unfortunately, to get at the real skinny, one must approach most so-called “news reports” that appear on those proliferating cable and internet programs with total skepticism, a jaundiced eye, and some knowledge and awareness of the issues – a tall order in our frenetic and overwhelming menu of fast moving events.

Another pervasive problem I have observed in today’s so called news operation is the byline, whether in print or video, which has over personalized journalism; the identity of the messenger who aspires to become a heroic journalist celebrity has become hostage to the alleged facts. It’s about me folks, my take, my interpretation, my spin, my political leaning, my style, my turn of phrase.

For the most part, these communicators are more concerned with attaining celebrity status by portraying themselves as honest brokers and wise interpreters of what passes for news. Many attain their reputation by exposing corrupt crooks, sexual predators and ruthless tyrants among the power elite.

There is a vast payoff in detective journalism, especially when it tears the mask off of the pretenders and the self-righteous. The payoff gets more and more lucrative as it travels up the line and fells the mighty oaks of politics, celebrities, the powerful and the super rich.

Notoriety has cash value. Just ask Woodward and Bernstein or Michael Moore and the vast array of profitable byliners who follow in their footsteps. At times it has a bizarre reverse effect, actually enhancing a clever and charming rogue who can wink at his mischief and restore a remarkable level of acceptance, if not respect. Bill Clinton is a prime example.

But on the other side of the coin is the pursuit of accurate, unbiased, objective reporting, the goings and comings of our contemporary world, the meaningful events, good and bad, that impact our lives, the crimes and wars and ideologies that threaten us, the inspirational and the horrifying, that require our knowledge and evaluation for us to arm our reason and help us navigate our increasingly complicated world.

It is essential that we search out and trust those who gather the news without biased adornments, hidden agendas and manipulative intent. Separating the truth from the background noise is hard enough without having to penetrate vast layers of distortions and egocentric ravings.

So let’s wave bye bye to the hapless Brian Williams. The bastards finally got his number.