Exactly one year ago tonight (Friday), Brian Williams took over the NBC Nightly News after Tom Brokaw’s 21-year run as anchor. Of the three men who dominated network news during the 1980s and 90s, Brokaw wasn’t the most biased, but he still reflected the liberal prejudices of his profession.
A year later, the same could be said of Brian Williams. Bob Schieffer’s CBS Evening News is no friendlier to conservatives than Dan Rather’s Evening News, and the medley of ABC anchors who have replaced Peter Jennings haven’t altered World News Tonight’s liberal slant. Indeed, the only big change in network news content in 2005 has been a continuation of the move towards softer, general interest stories and away from more serious topics like U.S. politics and foreign news, a trend that’s been underway for years.
By process of elimination, Williams could be seen as the most centrist of the three anchors, but his coverage of the big news stories — politics, the economy, Iraq, social issues — is not especially different from the other networks. And Williams has had his share of liberal gaffes this year:
# On March 1, while introducing a report on the Supreme Court’s decision to bar the death penalty for those under 18, Williams heralded how the ruling “ends a practice that drew ridicule for years from some of America’s closest friends around the world.” Would anyone care to guess which side of the issue Williams favored?
# On the May 18 NBC Nightly News, Williams was echoing Democratic talking points when he falsely asserted that the “nuclear” that the Senate was considering would end “the use of the filibuster to block votes on judges used by both sides for years.” In fact, Democratic use of the filibuster on multiple judicial nominees was unprecedented and Republicans never employed it in a partisan effort to block a nominee who had majority support. The last time Republicans were in the same alignment as Democrats are now (minority in Senate with President in opposition party), in 1993 and 1994, they did not filibuster any of President Clinton’s nominees.
# On June 30, referring to the suggestion that the newly-chosen President of Iran could have been one of the captors of U.S. hostages in 1979 during Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution, Williams suggested a sickening moral equivalence between the Iranian radicals and America's Founding Fathers — both, he thought, could be called terrorists.
He asked reporter Andrea Mitchell: “Andrea, what would it all matter if proven true? Someone brought up today the first several U.S. Presidents were certainly revolutionaries and might have been called terrorists at the time by the British Crown, after all.” Mitchell replied: “Indeed, Brian.”
It was a twisted take that Williams had actually previewed earlier that same day in the official Nightly News blog, The Daily Nightly. Williams wrote that the notion that the Iranian leader had been personally involved in anti-American terrorism “made for a robust debate in our afternoon editorial meeting, when several of us raised the point (I’ll leave it to others to decide germaneness) that several U.S. Presidents were at minimum revolutionaries, and probably were considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England.”
# Williams was on vacation during the first week of August, but he left behind a taped piece for the August 6 Nightly News. To mark the 60th anniversary of the Enola Gay dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Williams went to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport — where the plane is on display — and interviewed the plane’s navigator, Dutch Van Kirk.
Williams suggested Van Kirk should have a guilty conscience: “Do you have remorse for what happened? How do you deal with that in your mind?” Van Kirk indignantly set him straight: “No, I do not have remorse. I pity the people who were there. I always think of it, Brian, as being, the dropping of the atom bomb was an act of war to end a war.”
# And, after Hurricane Katrina, Williams seemed to come dangerously close to endorsing the view that racism was behind the slow rescue of residents in New Orleans. Appearing on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show on September 8, he approvingly relayed how, a “refrain” he heard from “everyone watching the coverage all week,” was “had this been Nantucket, had this been Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, how many choppers would have-” At that point, applause caused him to cut off his sentence as he gestured toward the audience to cite affirmation of a point.
That sounded suspiciously like a wordier, windier version of the belief uttered by rapper Kanye West just a week earlier on NBC: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Like Brokaw, Brian Williams is certainly not as biased as, say, Bryant Gumbel or Dan Rather, who could barely conceal their disdain for conservatives and admiration of liberals. Williams is obviously interested in creating a news program that does not repel conservatives in his audience — witness the fact that the publicity that surrounded his elevation last year stressed his interest in NASCAR racing.
But the record suggests that Williams’ newscast still reflects the liberal assumptions and beliefs that skew the media elite. NBC Nightly News may be the least biased of the Big Three network evening newscasts, but it’s still territory more friendly to liberals than conservatives.