By Jonathan S. Tobin
In our 24/7 news environment it is sometimes hard to remember the central role that the national evening news broadcasts played in American life prior to the cable revolution. But though those programs still exist and have a considerable audience, their importance is greatly diminished. That’s why the controversy over NBC News’ Brian Williams’s lies about his experience during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is significant, though not quite as earthshaking as it once might have been. But while the toppling of yet another mainstream media giant is still a big deal, it also points out the fallacy inherent in the way most Americans once regarded the institution of the evening news. Far from being the source of objectivity and integrity, these shows were, and are, the product of news organizations that are not only flawed but also saturated with liberal bias. It is that lack of intellectual integrity and bias that led to the success of the alternatives to these programs in places like Fox News and talk radio. The diminished audience for programs like the one Williams hosts (at least for now) is rooted in the lack of faith in the integrity of the mainstream media that his prevarications have once more illustrated.
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The clamor about Williams’ astonishing lies about what happened during his time in Iraq is amplified by the notion that he is not just another TV talking head but the face of NBC News. To be the leading personality of a broadcast network’s news division is not a small thing even in an era where there are hundreds of alternatives for viewers choose at 6:30 p.m. EST when the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams airs on weekdays. But though he has built a reputation and a following with a sonorous voice, sense of humor, and a low-key everyman style of reading the news, Williams is not quite the big deal that a person in his position would once have been considered.
For decades, the nation was largely dependent on the 30-minute programs shown by the three major networks for national and international news. Those who read the headlines on these programs—Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, and Howard K. Smith, just to mention those with the longest tenure—were not just TV stars. They were the gods of the news business and national icons rather than mere celebrities as some of today’s more prominent news readers might be considered.
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