How Should we Understand Brian Williams’s “Embellishment”?

The story of Brian Williams’s embellishment/fabrication/misremembering of his helicopter ride during the early days of the Iraqi invasion is still evolving, but many seem willing to cast final judgement on the Nightly News anchor and managing editor. Variety already has a piece up about Williams’s likely successors, Gawker thinks his “entire career [is] implod[ing]” before our very eyes, and an “ally” of Hillary Clinton’s has been distancing the presidential candidate’s own wartime memory issue from Williams’s. I’m not ready to despise Brian Williams for what we understand of this story so far, nor am I willing to say he’s committed a professional journalistic transgression that merits his resignation or firing. Here’s why. Please tear my reasoning apart in the comments section.

Where’s the motive?

I’ve liked and respected Brian Williams’s attitude and personal story for as long as I’ve known his name. I won’t change my mind about that until I see some solid evidence of a malicious motive for this behavior. What could this guy possibly be after? NBC has spent the past year celebrating Williams’s ten years as anchor, he is regularly ranked as one of the most trusted people in America (the list is pretty disheartening, but that’s beside the point), and Nightly News is consistently the most-viewed network news program. So, again, what does Brian Williams have to gain from this lie? I think it’s far more likely that he made a very public mistake, and I find that forgivable. Which brings me to my next point…

This mistake was a personal one.

Personal mistakes can have profound professional consequences, but that doesn’t mean we should conceive of personal errors in professional terms. Brian Williams’s actual reporting on the events in Iraq was – as far as we know – honest, which is actually the source of this controversy. I don’t think an erroneous story told over the PA at a Rangers game or on David Letterman’s couch is the same as one told on a news program. Yet many journalists and commentators are referring to Lara Logan and Dan Rather this week in the same breath as Brian Williams. Logan and Rather made mistakes while doing their jobs. Brian Williams made a mistake while having a job.

That isn’t to say that NBC lacks grounds to fire Williams. But those grounds are fiduciary. NBC is a business, and one of their chief properties might be (logically or not) irreparably damaged. The best way to begin to repair the damage to that property might be to remove its most public representative. We shouldn’t pretend, however, that such a decision is rooted in concerns about ethics or the quality of journalism.

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The NRA and Wayne LaPierre in Historical Context

Sorry, folks. There is no historical precedent to be found. I have never seen – nor heard of or read about – a press conference so tone deaf, so idiotic, so insensitive, and so dangerous. It is also a reminder that the National Rifle Association hasn’t represented gun owners for a long time. They represent gun manufacturers.

Over the past week, it has been heartening to see Republicans and Democrats come together around the importance of a national conversation about gun violence. We don’t know who agrees on what yet, but we know everyone takes the issue seriously — except the NRA. What an insult to the memory of those who died in Newtown. What a disgrace to responsible gun owners everywhere.

The Newtown Speech in Historical Context

President Obama’s speech tonight in Newtown, CT was the best of his political career. Every word was heartfelt and courageous; he consoled a grieving community, but was entirely unafraid to talk about the bigger – dare I say it – political picture. Read the transcript for yourself, but to my ears, a big portion of the President’s remarks implicitly advocated for a big push on gun control legislation. This came as a surprise to many, and on Twitter and television, people of all stripes have begun to ask where this speech – in light, particularly, of the aforementioned section –  might stand in the annals of presidential rhetoric. Many are comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which rings true for me largely on structural grounds. While at least 10 minutes longer, President Obama’s speech was striking in its brevity, and it had the same humble effectiveness that the Gettysburg Address did. An intriguing parity for sure, but the speeches are starkly different substantively.

I think the best comparison is to Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 speech on voting rights legislation. While significantly longer (more than 45 minutes in total), Johnson’s remarks share a lot substantively and contextually with President Obama’s. Johnson also spoke mere days after a tragedy; a week before his address to Congress, 600 marchers had been beaten and attacked with tear gas by state police as they walked peacefully across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. The images shocked the conscience of the nation, and Johnson used that shock to channel political energy for what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America…it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

One paragraph from President Obama’s speech seemed strikingly similar to me:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, all across America. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

Both men addressed a nation in shock, and both men elected to address a tenuous political issue in response. Johnson took on the last untouched bastion of racial discrimination, voting rights, and President Obama seems to be preparing to take on gun control.

Both speeches are also intensely personal. While Johnson enumerated clear policy aims, the most moving portion of his address came when he described his work as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas:

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school…My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry…Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child…I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.

President Obama’s rhetoric on parenthood was similarly evocative:

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged…And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Neither man feared the cries that they were “politicizing a tragedy.” They understood that in moments of great sadness, Americans look for more than sympathy from their leaders. They look for action.

Every once in a while, at home or in the car, I pull up Johnson’s speech on my iPhone. His words remind me of the moral courage our greatest leaders can deploy when they need to, and the incredible power such displays can have. It never ceases to amaze me how much passion Johnson displayed that night. As long as I’ve listened to the speech, I’ve regarded it as a uniquely fervent address by an American president. Now, more than 45 years later, it finally has some competition. I hope President Obama’s words will have a similar impact on our politics in the weeks and months ahead.

Robert Caro first drew my attention to Johnson’s speech in an August 2008 opinion piece. It is definitely worth a read. 

Bane Capital

Last Thursday, I went to my first midnight movie screening since “Star Wars: Episode I”. Leaving the theater at 3am after watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” I could not have been more satisfied by what I’d just seen. After six days of reflection, I still believe that what Christopher Nolan, et. al. have created will go down in history as one of the greatest contributions to action films ever. That said, the more I think about it, there are several things about the film that really bother me. The rest of this post summarizes my chief complaints, and is copied from an email I wrote to three of my close friends earlier this morning. As we discuss it, I’ll post interesting points to my Tumblr (it has a neat discussion feature I’ve wanted to try). By the way, the paragraphs below contain major spoilers — don’t even think about reading them if you haven’t seen the film. 

First and foremost, I liked The Dark Knight Rises a lot. Like so much these days, the movie was bound to fall victim to impossibly high expectations. That said, I think there are some valid points of criticism that are worth pointing out. The most significant problem I have with the movie is, very ironically, how rushed some aspects of it felt. At two hours and 45 minutes, this is a hefty film; yet to me, much of the heft seemed devoted to fantastically choreographed action scenes. The dialogue and character development – such a critical aspect of the first two films – almost seemed like a burden Nolan knew he needed to resolve as the movie careened towards its epic conclusion. Here are two glaring instances of this rushed feeling:

  • The whole character of Miranda Tate. When and how did she surface in the past eight years? Also, how does she so swiftly transition from being an annoyed investor (“You have a practiced apathy, Mr. Wayne” is one of the best lines in the whole trilogy) to a lover and willing conspirator? Her whole narrative arc felt odd to me.
  • I really enjoyed Bane, and his voice didn’t annoy me nearly as much as it did others. That said, his death really puzzled me. Again, it felt like Nolan didn’t think it through. In the beginning of the film (or, rather, the end of the first hour and a half), Batman is pummeled by Bane. We see him rebuild his back and regain his former strength in a (Moroccan?) prison, yet he doesn’t seem to learn any lessons or new skills from his first encounter (unlike after his fights with Ras al Ghul and the Joker). Despite that, he returns to Gotham, and immediately kicks Bane’s ass in a matter of minutes. To me, it was completely unclear what made Batman newly enabled to do so.

There isn’t a whole lot else that I found problematic with the film. I loved the ending. Where some directors and writers might have been arrogant enough to bring finality to the Batman canon, Nolan left a lot open for future auteurs to resolve. I think many will appreciate that in the future. Also, for what it’s worth, I absolutely loved Anne Hathaway’s contributions to the film.

Romney’s [Possibly] Bad Political Decision

Earlier today, I posted that Governor Romney’s decision to withhold additional tax returns (and make a huge spectacle about it) was a bad political decision. There’s a burgeoning debate about whether my assertions are correct – always valid – and I thought I’d expand on my thinking a bit here.

The most powerful evidence that Romney’s resistance will come back to haunt him might lie in President Obama’s experience with the ‘birther’ movement. You can’t draw many connections between the idiotic, nonsensical debate over Obama’s long-form birth certificate and the current issues with Governor Romney’s tax returns, but I see one: stubbornness. Both Obama and Romney seem to share a certain principled obstinacy; I think Obama’s was more justified, but I also think it blinded him to political reality in the same way it has Romney. As Obama eventually learned, good things don’t always come to politicians who wait. Romney will almost certainly release more tax returns (see here for the most compelling evidence), and when he does, the time he spent standing his ground will make the contents of those returns a much bigger story.

Oddly enough, James Bond might offer the best political advice on this (all imagery aside).

Who You Callin’ Out of Touch?

The Times makes a great point in a short piece on Mitt Romney’s continued refusal to release additional tax return: the former Massachusetts governor is displaying an unusual level of stubbornness in repeatedly refusing to release additional tax returns. He also can’t seem to find a solid argument for his position, especially with the cloud of uncertainty about the exact date of his retirement from Bain looming overhead. Regardless of context, Romney’s latest contention – that releasing more returns might leave his tax records open to distortion – is completely without merit. It’s not only bad politics (it makes him look, in Boston parlance, wicked shady), but it also denies Americans one of their fundamental rights as voters: to receive complete information, as fraught with complexity and contradiction as it may be, and evaluate it for themselves. Romney spends a lot of time painting President Obama as an out of touch elitist, but the former governor’s unwillingness to let voters consider the merits of various arguments about the meaning and relevance of his tax records speaks volumes about his respect for the nation’s electorate.

Update: A slight expansion of my thinking on the optics of Obama’s decision is here

More as this Television Show Develops

In September of 1999, Caryn James, the television critic for the New York Times, published a scathing review of one of NBC’s new fall dramas. She wrote that the first episode  was “sometimes smart, sometimes stupid, eventually gooey and, despite its sharp cast, not often entertaining.” In taking stock of the central character, she stated that he was “written and played for maximum hokiness.” The show to which Ms. James referred was Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” the fourth-winningest television drama in history that claimed over 16 million viewers weekly, even in its seventh season.

It seems inarguable that Caryn James might be retrospectively embarrassed by her review of what she called “an insulting mess,” and I have a feeling that the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum will feel the same way a few years from now. Nussbaum has affixed her name to a similarly-scathing review of Sorkin’s latest show in next week’s New Yorker, labeling “The Newsroom” as “naive” and full of “patterspeak.” Though I haven’t yet seen the show – I have to wait with the millions of other people who don’t have press credentials – I’m fairly confident that what Nussbaum portrays as inarguable, universal criticism is really just a matter of taste. What she regards as “arias of facts” others will regard as Sorkin’s signature banter; what she terms “moral eczema” will be viewed by others as courageous and refreshing.

A recent advertisement for Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom.”

This dissonance is the nature of taste and the way different types of television attempt to satisfy it. What is most problematic about Nussbaum’s review is her refusal to acknowledge the possibility that Sorkin might just be honestly, genuinely trying to produce thought-provoking television.

I didn’t watch “The West Wing” when it first aired. I was seven years old. When I finally did start watching, around the airing of the fifth season, I fell in love with program immediately. I’ll never know whether I would have had that same feeling watching the show when it first aired in 1999, and I don’t yet know how I’ll feel about “The Newsroom.” Regardless, at least at this point, I’m willing to place Emily Nussbaum and her review in the same group as Caryn James and hers; I call it…well, I’ll let President Bartlet do the talking.