As we approach the end of month two of Brian Williams' six-month suspension, most of us have forgotten all about the NBC anchor's exaggerations concerning his helicopter adventure in Iraq. Given the minor nature of his fabrication, perhaps that's understandable.
If the Williams affair was just an isolated incidence of a newsperson's ego getting the better of him, it wouldn't be a big deal. From where I sit, however, it appears to be symptomatic of a much bigger problem: the increasingly opaque border between news and entertainment.
I'm less concerned by Brian Williams' tall tale than I am by the ever-increasing number of newscaster cameos both in movies and TV shows. Recently, I started bingeing on Netflix's political drama House of Cards and found myself inundated with supposed newspersons playing themselves.
By my rough count, more than a dozen TV journalists have appeared just on that one show. Everyone from Morley Safer to John King to Meredith Vieira has played a reporter, an anchor, a debate moderator or a newsmagazine host.
House of Cards, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. For years now, all manner of TV newsperson has appeared as himself or herself on network television shows and in Hollywood movies.
My ten minutes of in-depth Internet research reveals that this practice goes back decades. Sander Vanocur, for one, appeared in the 1993 movie Dave. And much to my surprise, even the sainted Walter Cronkite engaged in such shenanigans over forty years ago when he appeared as himself on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Since then, the practice has only increased with such serial offenders as Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose and Larry King appearing in numerous films and TV shows. Now it seems that a reporter's status is measured more by the number of film and TV credits he or she has than by any awards for serious journalism.
So what's wrong with this trend? So what if some journalists like to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars and gain some fame? Where's the harm in that?
The harm comes from the blurring of the line between news and entertainment. Since its inception, network television news strived to establish and maintain journalistic standards akin to those practiced at the nation's most revered daily newspapers.
Great efforts were made to ensure that the news and entertainment divisions of television networks were separate. The news division was largely viewed as a public trust and was not required to be a profit center.
Notwithstanding Walter Cronkite's single foray into acting, it was rare for television news personalities to be anything but journalists. Forty years ago, news anchors were among the most trusted individuals in the land.
With rare exception, the networks maintained a firewall between their news division and the other branches of their business. The aim was to pursue journalism for its own sake.
That same firewall was recently invoked by none other than NBC newsman Chuck Todd when he expressed his concerns about his network launching a miniseries about the life of Hillary Clinton. Ironically, this is the same Chuck Todd who I watched last week playing himself on episode 33 of House of Cards.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. How can I not laugh when Mr. Todd speaks of a firewall between news and entertainment? More importantly, how can I take him seriously as a journalist when he engages in fictional dialogue in a TV drama?
It's been clear for some time now that television network news is no longer solely populated by journalists. It's not for nothing that the coined word infotainment has gained currency. Network news divisions are no longer exempt from the financial bottom line and they're all engaged in a ratings battle not only among themselves but also with a surfeit of Internet memes.
In an atmosphere like that, is it any wonder that news correspondents become news personalities who in turn become Hollywood stars? I suppose that's not the worst thing in the world but I think it's only fair that today's television news shows be required to feature an introductory warning, a warning something like this: The following show may or may not contain actual news delivered by individuals who may or may not be journalists. Viewer skepticism is strongly advised.
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