The Reporter And The Anchor: A Parable Of The Digital Age

Feb 16, 2015

Dr. Lawrence Pintak, the founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication--and a former war correspondent--takes a look at journalism today.
Credit Courtesy of Lawrence Pintak

It’s not about you; it’s about the story. That’s what we tell 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 covering conflict comes against the backdrop of the embarrassing spectacle of a major network television anchor caught making up war stories.

I worked with Bob when I was CBS News Middle East correspondent in the 1980s.  He was the reporter’s reporter, a consummate foreign correspondent who covered conflicts since Vietnam. Like iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow, Bob’s reports were all about the heroic people affected by global events, not about how heroic he was in telling their stories.

As the saga of disgraced NBC Anchor Brian Williams 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’s everyone following on Instagram.  He who has the most dramatic video promo, or the largest social media following, garners the biggest paycheck.

It used to be that reporters told exaggerated war stories around the bar after an adrenalin-fueled assignment; Williams told them on “Letterman” and the “Nightly News.”  The disgraced anchor 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.

Today, breathless-reporter-facing-death is a fixture of television news. “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.  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.

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.

When Williams announced he was temporarily stepping aside from the Nightly News—before he was forcibly put on leave--he said it had become “painfully apparent” to him that he had, as he put it, “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.

As Edward R. Murrow once said: “To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

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