Thursday, January 18, 2007

How Brian Williams Became Bill O'Reilly

Last night I attended The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for broadcast and radio journalism. Throughout the night, clips of some of the most impressive, heartstring-tugging, well-reported reporting work I've ever seen were screened and commented on by their creators and their presenters.

But despite the presence of some of the biggest names in the business (Brian Williams himself started the acceptance speeches), many of the winners and presenters couldn't help but get their digs in on the internet, blogs and citizen journalism - Williams included.

It's 2007. When is the blog, the video clip, the download, grassroots and the internet going to graduate from being a 'new phenomenon'? And why, in the age of newspaper blogs and increasing web revenue and a virtual paradigm shift in the way the press operates, must its finest agents be sarcastic - even downright bilious - toward the new direction their profession is headed?

Now, I know many of those present at the ceremony were of the mainstream media, a group whose jobs have been, on some level, threatened. I spotted New York Timesman Jonathan Landman mingling among the hors d'oeuvres. I saw the faces of big radio names in the shadows. Even the 'net-coined "pope of MSM" Columbia School of Journalism dean Nick Lemann was there, doing what deans do.

Yes, they're a different generation. Yes, they're resistant to change as they get older. And yes, it hasn't been easy to adapt to a new media climate. But it's 2007 - at least two years since blogs made a national political impact and almost a decade into the whole 'press on the web' concept (remember Lewinsky? Was that legitimate?). Adaptation is over. Adjustment was necessary. And the best thing Brian Williams could come up with was comparing his profession to "a video of a cat flushing a toilet."

Is that what he thinks the web is? The entirety of the citizen journalism movement is comedy clips and fire-spitting, 14-year-old, self-pronounced pundits who think they know it all?

Sitting in the audience - watching some of the most harrowing footage I've ever seen, bar none - I couldn't help but be distracted by the ignorant, reckless way the journalists on stage backhanded the web movement - citizen journalism, mobile journalism (yes, even blackberries), and web journalism in between the clips. It was in some ways callous, other ways careless and altogether strikingly elitist. And it was disgraceful to hear in Lowe Library, a location that is a testament to free thinking.

I look up to and respect these anchors, these reporters. And as I've said before, I think all journalists should be web-savvy. It's no wonder TIME cut all those jobs. So the more I hear journalism's finest talking trash about a new medium - just like Bill O'Reilly pigeonholed Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as nothing more than pot-smoking satirists interpreted by their equally-stoned teenage MTV audience as neutral and legitimate news sources on the O'Reilly Factor tonight - the more Brian Williams, as good as he is, is locking himself into his own "no spin zone" without oxygen.

Papa Bear would be proud.

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