Brian Williams And Parachute Journalism

There is another part of the Brian Williams story getting too little attention.  It is when the million dollar New York celebrity anchors drop in out of the sky to "report" on the crisis du jour that they never really covered.

All it takes is a disaster, tsunami, massacre, war, hurricane and, of course, easy access for planes carrying their camera crews and makeup teams.  That's why you're more likely to see them in the Middle East or Europe than Africa or South America.

The next time you watch 60 Minutes check the top right corner of the screen behind the celebrity reporter where it says "Produced by…."  Those are the names of the real reporters who did the real work. They spent weeks or months researching a story, conducting interviews, filming the visuals, writing the script and doing the leg work so the big name star – some of whom, like the late Bob Simon, used to be top notch reporters themselves — can drop in and tell the story on screen.  It's called being "big footed" when a Brian Williams flies in to take over the story. 

Before they became celebrities and anchors sitting at a desk reading introductions to the reports of others, many were real reporters themselves.  Like Williams, a rising star at NBC, who was embedded with the troops in Iraq.  He also had a reputation as a raconteur.  His stories made him popular on talk shows, if not among colleagues who thought he was a show-boater. 

Many of the celebrity reporters put themselves at the middle of the story, "Hey, look what I saw!  See what I did, who I met."  It sometimes comes off looking more like a blog than a network news show.

David Muir, the new ABC-TV anchor, stands out.  He likes to insert himself wherever he can, often on fluff stories, celebrity interviews and soft news items. That's where journalism and show biz collide and become infotainment. In the electronic media it's about visuals and ratings, especially when the big broadcasts compete for the same audience in the same hour every evening. 

When crises hit, the celebrity anchors grab their custom-made designer trench coats, hair stylists, makeup artist and camera crew to hop on a charter jet to go off to some hot spot to tell the world what is going on from the front lines as most often tracked down, researched and written by real but usually anonymous reporters.

Many of the anchors used to be reporters themselves, and some still can get a story.  Their celebrity status can give them access that might otherwise be unavailable.

But for the most part anchors like Brian Williams are paratroopers who drop in with their cameras crews so they can tell stories others reported. Unfortunately, Williams took home a lot more than he saw and that got him in trouble that he may not recover from.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.