I’ve been disappointed by many people in my lifetime as, I’m sure, have you. Unless we have hopes that exceed our expectations, life is a colorless and barren experience. At best, it’s a mediocre slog. But when you trust someone to act honorably and then they turn around and betray you with dishonesty, it hurts. Depending upon your investment in that person and his or her place in your world, the hurt could be as fleeting as a paper cut or as painful and enduring as an amputation.
By that measure, what Brian Williams did is a small bruise, one that will fade in a week or two. I had few expectations of the man who fed me the nightly news, someone who had a pleasant enough delivery, a nice face and some real journalistic chops. He wasn’t one of those blondes who have the kind of legs you try not to glance at while they’re emoting about some current event, and he wasn’t a snarky young pup whose mother or father was famous and had a multimillion dollar contract dumped in his (or her) lap.
Brian occupied a regular spot in my day, but he was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, or rather, in the small and personal scheme of things. His impact was marginally macro, but imperceptible at the micro level. Journalists are like that, today.
It wasn’t always this way. As a little girl, my family consisted of seven people: my mother and father, my three younger brothers (little sis was not yet born) and John Facenda. Facenda, later known as “The Voice of God,” delivered news to us, and so much more. He was the calm figure in the early evening hours who reminded my hardworking, frazzled parents that there was a world beyond their small and needy tribe, where wars and presidential elections and college sit-ins (the ones they never had a chance or a desire to participate in) were happening. He was a much more intimate Walter Cronkite, the black-and-white idol of our beloved and beleaguered hometown, Philadelphia, but he also had his finger on the national pulse. And he was family.
It never occurred to my parents to mistrust anything Facenda had to say. They didn’t have to. It wasn’t just that the man projected integrity, he was what he appeared: completely, utterly genuine. While I’m sure he had his moments of exaggeration, I’m pretty certain no one ever heard John Facenda boast about riding in a Sherman tank alongside Gen. Patton (unless, of course, he actually did.)
It wasn’t just the appearance of integrity that made Facenda a supernova among lesser stars. It was the actual possession of that indefinable quality you can’t acquire if you never had it in the first place.
That’s not to single out Brian Williams for a public shaming. In fact, from what I’ve seen, Williams had significantly more character than many of his colleagues, and a richer sense of humor.
But that’s the problem. Williams liked his job, liked being known, liked being liked. And it wasn’t just we in the anonymous ocean of viewers who liked him. Important people like David Letterman and Jon Stewart and Tina Fey liked him. And he liked them back, and liked what they did for him and how they made him feel. Williams was vain, which is not a surprise. The problem is that his vanity made him lose sight of his real job, giving us the news instead of making it.
That’s a mistake John Facenda would never have made. Neither would Cronkite, or Edward R. Murrow before him. Even when they did make news, as did the great Murrow in his battle with Joe McCarthy, it was not for self-aggrandizement. It was almost in spite of himself.
I said at the beginning of this column that I’ve been disappointed in life. Sometimes, it’s my own fault because I expect everyone to live up to the standards I grew up with. In the case of journalists, I suppose I was spoiled by Facenda and the reverence he inspired in my parents. But I never expected to feel reverence for his successors. I just hoped to avoid revulsion for some of their actions.
Williams does not deserve the vicious, personal attacks against him. The Internet vivisection of his reputation is repulsive, as is the pettiness of some of his colleagues’ comments.
Williams’ greatest crime is reminding us, once again, that there are no more John Facendas.
And that is why I feel inexplicably, personally, betrayed.