How Bob Simon, Brian Williams Present a Parable of the Digital Age (PBS MediaShift)

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(Feb. 13, 2015) It’s not about you; it’s about the story. That’s what we tell TV journalism students. The tragic death of 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon reminds us that even in the video selfie culture of TV news, accurate reporting matters.

Bob’s death after a lifetime of covering conflict comes against the backdrop of the embarrassing spectacle of a major network television anchor caught making up war stories.

Bob was the reporter’s reporter; a consummate foreign correspondent who covered conflict since Vietnam. Like iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow, Bob’s reports were all about heroic people affected by global events, not about how heroic he was in telling their stories.

As the Brian Williams saga underlines, that’s not necessarily the norm. In today’s superheated world of big-time TV news, it is increasingly all about the brand. Wolf. Anderson. O’Reilly. Who’s trending on Twitter; who is everyone following on Instagram.

It used to be that reporters told exaggerated war stories around the bar after an adrenalin-fueled assignment; now they tell them on Letterman or the Nightly News. He who has the most dramatic video promo, or the largest social media following, garners the biggest paycheck.

Williams embodies this era of news-as-entertainment. Bob Simon’s journalistic chops were forged in an earlier era, when correspondents were instructed to appear on camera only when we didn’t have enough footage or we needed to establish that we were indeed reporting from the scene – not from London or NY, as is increasingly the case.

But even then, there were signs of the slippery slope that brought us to today’s culture in which some stars, like Williams, parachute into a story for the TV news equivalent of a Facebook post.

In the early 1980s, standing in a besieged Palestinian camp in Northern Lebanon, I watched in amazement as a star correspondent from another network told his camerawoman to roll, grabbed a bewildered PLO fighter and broke into a zig-zagged, open-field run toward a mortar position. On camera, it was dramatic stuff. Make no mistake, the camp was under attack, but let’s just say the rest of us – reporters and fighters – felt no need to dive for cover at that particular moment. It was the kind of thing that would have Bob Simon shaking his head with a wry smile.

A colleague who covered the Gulf Wars recalls another rival correspondent donning his gas mask for dramatic effect when told he was about to go live, even though the “all-clear” had long since sounded. In contrast, Simon and his team quietly slipped their US military handlers and made their way to the front in search of the real story, ending up captives of the Iraqis for 40 days. Even if he had the technology, it’s not likely Simon would have been tweeting his way to the front or posting selfies in front of burned-out tanks.

Today, breathless-reporter-facing-death is a de rigeur from the world’s battlefields: ‘Here’s me on the shell-pocked street.’ ‘Here’s me posed next to the soldiers.’ ‘Did you hear that? Gunfire (aren’t I brave?).’ It’s the combat version of the hapless local weatherman standing out in the hurricane for effect.

Let’s be clear. There are many courageous reporters out there taking unholy risks to report from the flashpoints of the world. But when Anderson Cooper is punched in the face in Tahrir Square, that’s the headline; the blood-soaked Egyptian revolution is just a convenient backdrop for his telegenic journalistic adventure.

None of us can claim to even guess what was going on in Brian Williams’ mind as he told and retold his “conflated” misadventure in Iraq. Perhaps he had begun to believe his own PR. Or maybe, consciously or not, he was trying to keep up with journalists who don’t have to make up war stories, like Bob Simon, or Williams’ anchor competitors at CBS and ABC, both of whom, unlike Williams, earned their stripes covering foreign conflicts before ascending to the anchor desk.

When Williams announced last week that he was stepping aside from the Nightly News for “several days” (before he was forcibly put on leave), he said it had become “painfully apparent” to him that he had recently “become too much a part of the news.”

That is likely to be Williams’ epitaph. Bob Simon’s legacy, in contrast, is that he never got in the way of the story as he brought us the news in a manner that was engaging, compelling and true.

There’s a lesson in there for our journalism students – and for the industry.

Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS Middle East correspondent, is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and chief executive of Northwest Public Radio and Television.

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