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Once upon a time, I loved going to rock concerts.
It didn’t matter what the act was. Tickets were cheap in the 1980s: $15-$20; maybe $27.50 for fancy seats.
One week in the mid-80s I saw REO Speedwagon on a Monday night, and KISS that Thursday. I was at an Ozzy Osbourne/Metallica show where the crowd ripped open the seats and tossed seat cushions around the arena until a swirling cloud of cushions hovered over the arena floor. I thought there was a fire when Rage Against the Machine played the Lollapalooza Festival in 1993, but it wasn’t smoke; it was the mosh pit kicking up dry dust in front of the stage. A decade earlier Brian Johnson walked down our aisle with Angus Young on his shoulders during an AC/DC concert at the Brendon Byrne area. It really impressed my girlfriend at the time.
Back in the day, the Brendan Byrne Arena and Giants Stadium were the main concert venues for big touring acts. Both venues are still around but they’ve sold their names for corporate sponsorship; they’re the Izod Center and Metlife Stadium now.
Even though I haven’t been to a big rock concert in over a decade, I was happy to take my 10-year-old daughter and her friend to see One Direction at Metlife Stadium recently. Live music is awesome and I was eager to indoctrinate my daughter into the rock concert experience.
1D For Me
Making our way into Metlife Stadium I noticed a trend; it seemed most parents were waiting in the parking lot, tailgating, while their kids went into the concert. Not me. I was there for the music, man! Plus, my daughter’s only 10, I wasn’t going to send her and her friend into Metlife Stadium by themselves.
One Direction played a fine set, though the emphasis seemed to be more on explosions, fireworks, streamers and balloons rather than the music. During the power ballad everybody held up the flashlight app on their cell phones and waved them back and forth. I wondered what happened to all the cigarette lighters, but then I realized that nobody smokes anymore, and lighters are dangerous.
The One Direction concert came off a bit impersonal, but I can’t blame the band. They’re just following a trend that began years ago, back when I was still a regular concertgoer.
Giant video screens have been around at rock concerts since the early ‘80s, and while it’s supposed to make big stadium shows feel cozy, instead they reduce live performance to a TV show. Why watch the little man with the guitar from 200 yards away when you can watch the video screen and get a close-up? Why even go to a live concert at all when you can watch the same video footage from the comfort of your home?
Before the use of big video screens, bands used stage effects that enhanced the music rather than distract from it. From the mid-‘60s and into the ‘70s rock bands had liquid light shows or psychedelic light shows projected behind them while they played. The swirling, colorful amoeba shapes were eventually replaced by elaborate lighting rigs that synched with the dynamics of the music. The Genesis light show was a selling point for their live performances well into the 1980s.
Lost In Techno Translation
But as technology advanced, an intimacy was lost in the concert going experience. Giant video screens simultaneously brought audiences closer to the performers and reduced them to characters on TV. During the One Direction concert I saw several fans recording the concert with their camera phones, but instead of focusing on the members of the band, they were recording the images on the giant video screens. Why?
One thing that hasn’t changed about modern concerts is the energy created when fans gather together to celebrate the music they enjoy. This is the core essence of the concert experience, the same blueprint as religious gatherings. I saw many Grateful Dead concerts over the years, and the atmosphere was very close to a church mass. There was the same sense of reverence, respect, ritual, and release.
And hopefully that will never change. Long live rock-n-roll!
Originally published in Wayne TODAY, October 2014
We live in the Age of Apology, where knee jerk reactions are the norm, and thin-skinned political correctness reigns. Politicians, pop stars, athletes, actors, comedians, talk show hosts, and church leaders are pressured into insincere public apologies if they “offend” some special interest group or another.
But the Age of Apology has little to do with true forgiveness. Forgiveness in the court of public opinion serves another function altogether.
Send In The Creeps
Exhibit A: Woody Allen. Woody Allen was in a relationship with Mia Farrow for years, helping raise her adopted daughters. But in 1992 Allen separated from Farrow and began a romantic relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn (when Woody was 56, and Soon Yi was 19.) Recently, Woody Allen’s biological daughter with Farrow, Dylan, accused him of molesting her when she was a child.
Woody Allen is a creep.
But he’s also a brilliant artist whose career spans over 50 years. Critic Roger Ebert called Woody Allen “a treasure of the cinema.” Woody’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” is amassing award nominations. Audiences and actors alike look past Woody’s personal faults and continue to enjoy his art.
Roman Polanski is despicable, too. In 1977 he admitted to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He worked out a deal that would spare him jail time, but when that deal fell apart, he fled the country and hasn’t set foot on American soil since.
But Polanski still makes great films. In 2002 he won the Best Director Oscar for “The Pianist.” Actors are eager to work with Polanski, and producers finance his films. Evidently his crimes can be overlooked, too.
Despicable Hollywood Creep #3: Mel Gibson. Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rants, and hate-filled voicemails to his ex-girlfriend show serious personal problems. Mel Gibson isn’t on Woody Allen or Roman Polanski’s level (either as an artist or a criminal) but — for whatever reason — he DOES NOT get a pass. Nobody wants to work with old Mel anymore … at least not at the moment or for the foreseeable future.
Why are some loathsome artists forgiven while others aren’t? Why is Alec Baldwin A-list and Mel Gibson on the blacklist? They’re both entitled jerks with explosive tempers. Why can we separate the man from his art in one case, but not the other?
Time heals wounds, and public perception and political climates change. Death helps, too. When an artist is long gone, his work can finally be viewed objectively, apart from the way he lived life. Charles Dickens was a terrible husband and father. Pablo Picasso was a philanderer. Writers Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were anti-Semitic, as was composer Richard Wagner.
“We Forgive You, Rock Star!”
Today we forgive Chris Brown for beating up girlfriend Rihanna, though a generation ago we couldn’t forgive Ike Turner for doing the same to Tina. We absolve Marv Albert of sexual assault and Michael Vick of animal cruelty, but come down hard on Paula Deen for racial slurs she uttered decades ago.
There are parallels in the world of sports. Alex Rodriguez (baseball cheat) is on brink of flushing his legacy down the toilet. Lance Armstrong (cycling cheat) already did, along with Barry Bonds (baseball cheat), and Aaron Hernandez (serial killer).
Others athletes are forgiven. Tiger Woods (adultery), Pete Rose (sports gambling), Kobe Bryant (sexual assault), and Ben Roethlisberger (sexual assault) have all outdistanced their checkered pasts.
My job as a journalist is to try to make sense of things, to look for repeating patterns, find consistency in apparent chaos. But I can’t find any logic or order in Public Forgiveness. Apparently it works on a sliding scale based on the severity of your crime versus the magnitude of your talent, but as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski show, the scale is far from accurate.
Forgiving celebrity sins isn’t about true absolution anyway. It’s a plot device to move stories forward. People love familiar stories, and we look for them in the lives of wayward actors and athletes. We love to see the mighty fall. We love even more when they get back up and keep fighting, battling against the odds. Everybody loves an underdog. Forgiveness is the device that allows our heroes to rise from the ashes.
Disgraced actor Shia LaBeouf (drunk/violent/plagiarist) is reinventing himself while begging Public Forgiveness. LaBeouf recently did a live performance piece called “#IAMSORRY” wearing a paper bag over his head with the phrase, “I’m not famous anymore,” written on it. LaBeouf sat silent and alone at a table full of props while art goers milled around him. Props included an Indiana Jones whip, a Transformer toy, daisies, a ukulele, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a bowl of nasty Tweets, a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, and a book by author Daniel Clowes, whom LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing. One reviewer of “#IAMSORRY” said, “it was apparent LaBeouf had been crying, and the experience was surprisingly touching.”
Maybe turning apology into performance art is the next evolutionary step in the Age of Apology.
If so, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen need to put on Oscar-worthy performances.
Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 2014
You’ve heard the old adage – “It pays to buy the best.”
Well, it’s a lie. Maybe it used to be true but it’s not anymore.
Here’s another ancient un-truth: “You get what you pay for.” That’s true sometimes, but not always.
I’m a cut-rate guy. I know this about myself and I accept it. I rarely pay full-price for anything. I rarely buy top-of-the-line merchandise. I look for deals, sales, “gently-used” items – anytime I can pay less, I’m in.
My wife calls this the “Rob Errera Cheese Factor,” but I resent that. I’m not just being cheap and cheesy. I’m being frugal and wise. I’ve been an “educated consumer” for more than 30 years now and the more shopping I do the more educated I become. In my experience I’ve found you have to strike a balance between cost vs. functionality and items that are marketed as “the best” are rarely worth the extra money they demand.
Case in point – my new headphones. For the past year I’ve been using a $10 pair of earbuds. They sound okay, but they’re “entry level” earbuds. I decided to treat myself to a fancy pair of ‘buds. Hey, I’m a music lover — it’ll be worth the extra expense, right?
Well, there are lots of choices. Earbuds range in price from $5 to $500. I settled on fairly upscale $100 pair. I was impressed with them – the sound is much fuller and rich. I can hear more detail in the music I listen to. I can hear the squeak of the violin bow during classical pieces, the creak of the drummer’s throne during a quiet moment in a jazz set. Yeah, these new earbuds sound good.
But they don’t sound ten times better than the $10 earbuds I was using, you know? They sound maybe, three times better. If these earbuds cost $30 I’d feel I got my money’s worth. But they cost more than three times that, and, as a result, I’m left feeling I overpaid for a “better product” that failed to meet my expectations.
Cost vs. Function
This whole “cost vs. quality” issue is something I encounter all the time when shopping. During these tough economic times you have to question the price of everything and ask, “is it worth it?”
A better question might be “Who decides what this is worth?” I’m sure there’s an elaborate science to “consumer price points” and figuring out how much to charge for various products. But the numbers they’re crunching don’t add up.
Why does a BMW SUV cost $40,000 and a Hyundai SUV cost $20,000? Is it really “twice the vehicle” as the Hyundai? Will it look and drive twice as nice? Will it only cost half as much to maintain? Will it last twice as long?
Apply this formula to all of your purchases. Is that $3 loaf of Wonder Bread three times tastier that the $1 store-brand bread? Is Poland Spring water 50-percent better than generic spring water?
Sometimes the answer is yes. (I’ll buy store-brand bread, but I won’t cut corners on paper towels or toilet paper — you’ll end up with a mess on your hands…literally.)
I’ll spend top dollar on something I feel is important. I bought my wife’s engagement ring from Tiffany’s in New York. Yeah, I could have gotten a bigger, better ring down in the Diamond District, but this one came in a swanky “little blue box.” My wife seemed impressed. She agreed to marry me so the ring fulfilled its desired function.
But if you ask yourself “is it worth it?” about the products you buy you’ll probably find the answer is often “no.”
So what are you to do? Just buy cheap stuff all the time?
Yes. You should buy the cheapest product around that meets your needs.
And once you do, you should immediately accept the fact that you’ve just brought a cheap product and it will not be as good as other products on the market (those products that cost twice as much but are not twice as good.) And when your cheap product breaks – which it will, soon – you won’t get it fixed. You’ll trash it and get another cheap product.
Built To Fail
Sound sad? It is. But that’s what manufacturing has evolved to. Everything’s disposable. Everything’s junk. Even “quality merchandise” has a limited lifespan and may not be worth fixing once it breaks. Nothing is built to last anymore.
A better plan is to bring your broken piece of junk back to the store where you bought it for a refund. Perhaps the store will exchange it for a working piece of junk of equal value. If there are enough returns, maybe manufacturers will stop building products so cheaply. I’m sure a lot of price points are based on consumer demand. If we all demand better stuff maybe we’ll get it.
And if, on your travels to over-priced stores to buy/return poorly produced junk, you should happen to see something shiny lying on the ground, stop and take a closer look. It might be the stone from my wife’s engagement ring, which fell out of its classic “Tiffany setting” years ago. The diamond might be in our house, or in our car, or anywhere else in Northern New Jersey.
If you find it, you can thank me for buying the best.
Originally published in Wayne TODAY, May 2009
The written word is dying.
Like dodo birds and dinosaurs, handwriting is facing extinction. Approximately 46 states have adopted the new Common Core Standards, a set of educational guidelines that do not require cursive writing as part of the school curriculum. Many school districts around the country are already starting to phase out handwriting courses.
Some argue this is a natural progression in educational instruction.
Everybody uses computers now, so it makes more sense to teach kids how to type on a QWERTY keyboard, right?
My gut instinct is no, handwriting is still important.
Writing in longhand connects you to your words in a way typing doesn’t. Pushing ink over paper with a pen is a unique sensation, a singular pleasure. There’s nothing quite like it.
But I honestly don’t do much handwriting anymore, and, from what I gather, neither does anyone else.
I still sign checks, but most payments are made electronically.
I write to-do lists by hand, and shopping lists. (Then again, the last two times I went to the supermarket I forgot the list, so my wife texted it to me. I shopped with phone in hand instead of a crumpled Post-It.) I handwrite thank you notes and greeting cards, and sometimes I’ll leave a dirty note and/or crude drawing in my wife’s purse for her to find later.
I edit with a pen, and make lots of handwritten notes (like this one!)
And I’ll still use pen and paper when I need to write something with a certain shape or rhythm. Sometimes I’ll write magazine coverlines by hand if I need to see how the words stack up. I write song lyrics longhand. Poetry, too (hey, no giggling!)
I’m old enough to recall how important penmanship was in grade school.
It was never my best subject.
I remember my second grade teacher pacing the room while the class worked on cursive writing.
“Nice job, John!”
“Robert, your Cs are so sloppy! Stay in the lines!”
I tried, but my penmanship hasn’t improved much beyond grade school level. My mother says I have a “doctor’s signature.”
Evidently my horrendous handwriting is now in style.
Autograph seekers have found that younger stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, have barely legible signatures, while older celebrities have a more practiced hand.
“With stars ages 30 and above, they generally have a much more full, legible signature,” says Justin King, a Toronto-based paparazzi and independent autograph seller. “When you deal with these new people like Elle Fanning, you’re lucky if you get an E an F and a heart for her signature.”
My script is sloppy, but I write fast, a skill I acquired covering town council and school board meetings as a Today reporter.
You had to get the quotes right, along with the facts and figures. I even know a bit of shorthand.
Not too long ago my wife and her sisters were cleaning out their deceased father’s old office records, boxes upon boxes of ledgers filled with neatly-scripted dental records.
That’s something you’ll never see again. I felt a bit strange feeding the pages into the shredder, like I was destroying a bit of history.
Because history is written in longhand, from the Declaration of Independence, to the old tax records down at town hall, to the love letters your grandmother keeps in a box in the attic.
I suppose there comes a point when a culture needs to let go of an old-fashioned way of doing things to make way for new technology. Cave walls gave way to stone tablets, which yielded to paper, the printing press, and now, the computer screen and memory chip.
But if schools decide to no longer teach cursive writing, I hope they still teach students how to read it.
History depends on it.
Is it worth going to college?
The answer used to be an unequivocal “yes” — college grads got better jobs and better pay than non-graduates. But the job market is different today. The cost of getting an education has risen dramatically, while the job market has shrunk. Many young graduates find themselves with thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in debt with student loans, and few lucrative job opportunities to pay them off.
High school grads are left in a quandary. Is it worth spending four years and $100,000 to earn a bachelor’s degree, just so you can compete for a $25,000-a-year entry-level job? Wouldn’t you be better off working for four years instead, getting real world experience and a head start on the your career?
It’s a sad choice to have to make. An education is priceless, whether it helps land you a job or not. Feeding your head, expanding your base of knowledge, is perhaps the most important function a thinking being can perform. Getting smarter and growing wiser are signs of a life well lived. It’s a shame to have to put a price tag on that.
But most people do. I remember a tear-filled confrontation with my parents during my freshman year at Rutgers University. I was flunking out, not because I couldn’t handle the academic load, but because I couldn’t wake up for classes. But I was enjoying college life…a little too much.
I sat in my parents’ living room, blubbering like a fool, trying to convince them I’d do better if I transferred to Seton Hall. But SH cost three times more than Rutgers, and my father couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it. Why should he? He’d already paid for two wasted semesters at Rutgers. Why should he pay triple for me to goof off at a different school?
He was right, of course. If my parents had made me pay for college myself, I probably would have seen it their way much sooner. Instead I transferred to Rutgers Newark campus, commuted to school and worked full time. I buckled down (somewhat), though I still relied on mommy to wake me up for class. I took summer courses and was able to get my degree in a semi-respectable four-and-a-half years, and graduate with a not-too-shabby 3.0 grade point average.
Higher education has become another consumer decision, like buying a house or car. You have to consider which school offers the best value for your budget. I endorse state universities and community colleges — places where you can get a feel for college life and earn credits toward your core curriculum without spending an arm and a leg. If you do well and want to be a rocket scientist, then you can transfer to Yale or Harvard, and assume the $200K student loan. You’ll probably be able to pay it back fairly easily.
But if you’re paying $200K to get an Ivy League degree in business, education, finance, or a variety of other milquetoast majors, you’re wasting your money. There’s not enough return on your investment.
Your degree won’t be worth the kind of job you’re likely to get (if you’re lucky to get one at all). That wasn’t always the case, but it is now.
A college degree is still important. But which college it comes from — and how much you pay for it — is becoming less so. Online universities offer endless opportunities for continuing education. Internships and apprenticeships can you teach you much more about your potential career, including whether it’s worth investing money in college or specialized training.
A passion for learning and a continual quest for knowledge should be essential traits for everyone.
But a college degree, not so much anymore.
Remember “The Secret Garden?” No, not that stodgy old children’s tale. The adult coloring book!
I’m not talking about funnyman Colin Quinn’s latest literary effort, “The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America,” either. That’s a funny book, but not the kind of coloring book I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a grab-your-crayons-and-find-a-sunny-place-to-work kind of coloring book. Adult coloring books are topping bestseller lists around the globe. “The Secret Garden” recently topped the New York Times Bestseller list. French publisher Hachette has a collection called Art-Thérapie with 20 volumes including all kinds of drawings from butterflies and flowers to cupcakes, graffiti and psychedelic patterns. In the United Kingdom, illustrator Mel Simone Elliot’s “Colour Me Good” series lets you color-in pictures of celebrities like Ryan Gosling, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Kate Moss. Spanish cartoonist Antonio Fraguas, or Forges, published Coloréitor, “a de-stress book.”
Grown-up coloring books are marketed as a way to escape the media bombardment of the digital world and rediscover the do-it-yourself joys of something simple and stress-free. According to psychologists, coloring activates both halves of the brain, stimulating creative skills as well as a sense of logic and reason. Coloring can bring a sense of relaxation that lowers activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotion and is affected by stress.
One of the most common symbols found in adult coloring books are mandalas, spiritual symbols from India that represent the universe. Mandalas have circular designs with concentric shapes and geometric symmetry, like the intricate patterns of a flower. One of the first psychologists to use coloring mandalas as a relaxation technique was Carl G. Jüng in the early 20th century.
The first time I saw an adult using a coloring book was during an early episode of the reality show “The Osbournes” back in 2002. Here was Ozzy Osbourne, the Dark Prince of Rock-n-Roll, sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by foul-mouthed chaos, calmly working a color-by-number landscape with a package of magic markers. He looked like an overgrown child, carefully selecting each color, and staying within the lines. Evidently the Ozzman was ahead of the curve when it comes to unwinding through art.
The Zen-like instructions for one of Amazon’s bestselling adult coloring books tells the story:
- Break out your crayons or colored pencils.
- Turn off your phone, tablet, computer, whatever.
- Stop thinking about your job, your credit score, your reputation with your co-workers, your goals, your waistline, your retirement savings, etc.
- Remind yourself that coloring is like dancing, or being alive. It doesn’t have a point; it is the point.
- Find your favorite page in the book. That is the beginning.
- Start coloring.
- If you notice at any point that you are having fun, forgetting your worries, daydreaming freely, feeling more creative, excitable, curious, delighted, relaxed or any combination thereof, breathe deeply and take a moment to enjoy it. Then, gently return your attention to coloring.
- When you are satisfied or don’t feel like it anymore, stop.
Adult coloring books are a way to recapture the innocence of youth. They also give artists a sense of control; everything’s got a specific shape and color, just follow the key and stay in the lines. Color-by-number and fill-in-the-blank style artwork offers a “shortcut” for artists of all skill levels. You can create your own artistic masterpiece without the talent and/or training of a fine artist!
Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” This is why adult coloring books are so popular. They can cleanse the soul, or at least give your mind and spirit a rest, a chance to create something colorful, pretty, and uniquely your own.
Plus, it’s good to get your fingers working at something other than a keyboard, touch screen, or remote control.
The transgender issue is confusing, both politically and socially, but maybe we can find comfort and guidance in Greek mythology.
Tiresias was a blind prophet from Thebes. He had a lifespan of seven generations, so he appears in a lot of ancient Greek stories and plays, usually showing up at an inopportune moment to give the protagonist a dire prediction. But Tiresias wasn’t always blind or clairvoyant… and he wasn’t always a man.
According to legend, Tiresias once stumbled upon two snakes fornicating, and struck the creatures with a stick. This angered the goddess Hera, and she punished Tiresias by turning him into a woman. (Why was this considered a punishment? Were the Greek myths all written by men? And, more importantly, did Tiresias go by “Theresa” after his sex change?)
Tiresias lived as a woman for seven years, until she again came upon coupling snakes in the wilderness. This time she left the snakes alone (or trampled them to death, according to some versions of the story). Either way, the “curse” was lifted, and Tiresias changed back into a man.
Later on, Tiresias found himself called upon to settle a dispute between Hera and her husband Zeus. Hera argued that men got more pleasure out of sex, while Zeus believed women enjoyed it more. Tiresias, who lived as both sexes, was asked to cast the deciding vote.
“Of ten parts, a man enjoys one only,” Tiresias said, implying Zeus was correct. Hera was so angry, she struck Tiresias blind. Zeus felt bad for Tiresias, so he attempted to make up for his wife’s hostile overreaction by granting Tiresias the gift of clairvoyance and extending his lifespan sevenfold.
What can we learn from this Greek myth, and how does it apply to modern transgender issues? Well, it shows us that the debate over gender roles and gender identity is as old as storytelling itself. It also suggests the Greek myths were created by misogynistic men obsessed with the number seven.
But the main lesson is simply this: Be comfortable in your own skin… whatever skin you’re in.
Tiresias was a happy, successful man — a respected advisor to the leaders of Thebes — before Hera turned him into a woman. But Tiresias took the change in stride and made the most of it. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children, including a daughter, Manto, who was allegedly an even more gifted fortune-teller than her father … er, mother.
Some versions of the myth claim Tiresias was a famous prostitute during his “lady years,” but, again, these stories were likely authored by geeky and vindictive men in togas who were spurned by women. Some things never change. History is not only written by the victors, but for many years it was written by men who resented and looked down on women.
Living life as both a man and a woman is a blessing, a curse, and a path to enlightenment for Tiresias. When the gods took his vision and gave him “second-sight,” Tiresias embraced his role as blind prophet. He appears frequently in Greek plays and literature, though his job is sometimes difficult. He once had to tell King Oedipus that Oedipus had inadvertently killed his own father and married his mother. Yuck, right? But don’t shoot the messenger! Soothsaying is a tough gig.
Whatever lemons life (or the gods) tossed at Tiresias, he turned into tasty lemonade — and then into a profitable chain of lemonade stands. Tiresias lived to his fullest personal potential, even when the person he was kept changing. He was a respected man, a fine woman, and a blind prophet rock star. Whoever he was, he was the best he could be.
That’s something we should all strive for, whether you’re a man, a woman, or something in between.
I learned journalism basics at college in the late 80s.
1) Ask the five “W” questions. Who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes “how.”
2) Report the facts. Stories have many sides, and the people involved all have a personal agenda. Cut the fluff from the facts and deliver the closest version of “the truth” as possible.
3) Get quotes from involved parties. Quotes may or may not be factual. Quotes are simply one person’s side of the story.
4) Don’t put yourself in the story. A true journalist is invisible, a fly on the wall.
That last rule has become increasingly blurred over the last 30 years, and the latest to forget is “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.
I feel bad for Williams. For the last decade he delivered the news on NBC in admirable fashion. He read the words on the teleprompter and occasionally colored those words with appropriate emotional flavor. But when Brian Williams goes off-script, troubles begin.
Williams was recently suspended without pay for six months after it was revealed he lied about a war story during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Further digging showed Williams embellished stories on several occasions, including his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Like a geeky high school kid, Brian Williams lied so he could look cool. But in a world where privacy is a farce and fact checking is easy, it’s hard to get away with monkey business or tall tales.
You can’t completely blame Williams for gilding the lily. Coolness was one of the traits imbued upon him by his handlers at NBC, along with sharp suits and white teeth. They encouraged Williams to yuk it up with late night hosts, from Jimmy Fallon to David Letterman.
What’s Brian Williams supposed to talk about on Letterman? He’s got to be as interesting as Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer! The NBC brass seemed to support Williams’ appearances. Perhaps Williams was being groomed to take over a late-night job himself one day.
But that seems unlikely now. Williams is being called a raconteur, a spinner of yarns, a teller of tales. Being a raconteur is great if you’re putting on a one-man theatre show (or if you’re a newspaper columnist), but if you’re being paid to be a truth-teller, there’s a problem.
At the time of this writing, there’s talk Williams might be fired from NBC. The New York Post claims to have found an important “morals clause” in Williams contract which reads:
“If artist commits any act or becomes involved in any situation, or occurrence, which brings artist into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which justifiably shocks, insults or offends a significant portion of the community, or if publicity is given to any such conduct, company shall have the right to terminate.”
But the language used points out exactly why Williams shouldn’t be fired. He’s an “artist,” not a reporter or a “journalist.”
The immediacy and intimacy of social media has changed the boundaries of modern journalism. The public-at-large, equipped with trusty smartphones, is an army of “imbedded reporters” (see the rise of CNN’s iReports and the ever-expanding blogosphere) and “real journalists” have become news-readers, color commentators, and “television personalities.”
Journalists — from Katie Couric to Perez Hilton — are a new kind of modern celebrity. (So are rich housewives and duck hunters. What happened to our standards? Didn’t celebrities used to have to be good at something exceptional or impressive?)
The problem really isn’t Brian Williams’ attention-seeking fables, but a media machine and news-consuming public that demands our anchors be dashing adventure–seekers, physically beautiful, intelligent, funny, opinionated, witty, relentless investigators, and good on camera. It’s a lot to ask. Brian Williams did his best to stay afloat in the brackish waters where journalism and entertainment meet, but was sunk by one-to-many big fish stories.