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NBC News and Populist Politics: Who Needs Glaciers or the Rule of Law?

Christian Christensen

Lost in all of the hullabaloo over Jay Leno's final hours on the Tonight Show was a rather telling interview on May 22 with NBC Nightly News anchor and "journalist" Brian Williams (I put the word in quotation marks because that's what Williams calls himself). NBC Nightly News, as NBC employee Leno pointed out, is the highest-rated network television news program in the United States, and has been so for almost a decade with average weekly audiences in the region of 8 million viewers.  

What made the interview interesting was not the blatant cross-promotion on the part of NBC, nor was it Williams' name-dropping of sponsors (such as Lipitor and Celebrex) during his wry set-piece on turning 50. These tactics have become so commonplace that they barely garner attention. What made the interview interesting is what it told us about Williams' attitude regarding three of the most important contemporary issues facing citizens in the United States (and globally): over-consumption, global warming and detainees at Guantanamo

For a "journalist" working for General Electric, Williams does quite well, pulling in an estimated $10 million per year. It would take an experienced reporter at the New York Times, at an average of $90,000 per year, 111 years to make Williams' annual salary. Let's hope that NYT reporter is taking Lipitor and Celebrex. One would think that Williams' staggering income, combined with the fact that he is the anchor and managing editor of the most-watched network news program in the United States, might lead him to choose his words carefully on issues of national and global importance.  

Thankfully for critics of the hyper-commercial US media system, however, Williams decided (in front of 6 million viewers) that journalistic "objectivity" wasn't really necessary when it came to discussing trifling issues such as oil consumption and habeas corpus. On the former, Williams played the populist card beautifully by suggesting that President Obama's efforts on mileage standards ignored the fact that, once you leave the big city (you know, places like New York, Washington and San Francisco where out-of-touch Marxists smoke weed and burn pictures of Lincoln while riding on "socialized" public transportation), the rest of America is generally a "Ford F150" country. Exactly how many people in the US actually need a truck the size of a Ford F150, on the other hand, Williams failed to joke about. Williams also noted that he was more interested in the noise made by the engine of his Mustang than fuel efficiency, and proudly announced that he actually did not want to know the gas mileage he is getting. Not surprising, I guess, given the fact that he makes $1140 an hour.   

Williams then moved on to another hilarious topic: Guantanamo. When asked about the "debate" between Cheney and Obama over the closure of the prison, the nation's top journalist joked that the people in Guantanamo obviously could not be sent to the Bel Air hotel in Los Angeles. Once again, exactly who had suggested that the detainees should be coddled was not a topic for discussion. Williams made no mention, of course, of the time-honored US belief that individuals are innocent until proven guilty, regardless of how evil or criminal their cell-mates might happen to be. But populist analysis was, once again, the order of the day. With his Bel Air gag, Williams played into the notion that all detainees at Guantanamo, by simple virtue of the fact that they are there, must be guilty of something.  

What all of this boils down to is story-telling power, and Williams has that power in droves. It might be acceptable for members of the general public to make the kinds of comments made by Brian Williams on oil or Guantanamo, but when the $10 million face of NBC news sits in front of an audience of millions and jokes about caring more about how his engine sounds than fuel efficiency while vast chunks of the polar ice-caps break off, or offers a throw-away line on an issue fundamental to US law, he insults not only the profession of journalism, but also the people he claims to be working for (...the public, not GE). Williams would do well to consider the fact that the same millions who watch him nightly, and who watched him on Leno, were, research shows, amazingly ill-informed by his network and others in the run-up to the war in Iraq.  

Through his weak and irresponsible populist banter, Williams has once again illustrated both the depths to which journalism in the US has sunk and the reasons why corporate and governmental propaganda retains such a firm foothold in public discourse.  


Christian Christensen (a US citizen) is Associate Professor in the Media and Communication Studies Department at Karlstad University, Sweden. He can be reached at

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