Saturday, February 14, 2015

On a Terrible Week for Trusted Journalists

It's been a horrid week for the media. So horrid, in fact, that I worry I may be writing this prematurely. But much has been lost in the furor here that should be considered more thoroughly.
The first, in relation to the suspension of NBC's Brian Williams on Monday, is that human memory is disturbingly unreliable. Our minds often conflate events, particularly when under stress, and sometimes form entirely fake memories. Further, when trying to remember an event, the brain is actually remembering the last time you recalled that event. So if someone retells a story over and over and it changes even a little bit each time, they can end up with a clearly different story. This may sound odd, but consider that all of us have likely gotten into arguments with another person who remembers an event differently than we do. In most such cases, there's a genuine dissonance between memories. (The pilot of Williams' helicopter, it should be noted, remembers Williams' version of events and has questioned his own memories.) I don't think Brian Williams was lying; I think he made an honest mistake. That doesn't excuse it, of course, but I don't think he should be fired. (Even if it were in bad faith, the Times' David Brooks convincingly argues that Williams should be forgiven.)  Unfortunately, the suspension was probably necessary as the furor continues, and I would be quite surprised if Williams were to keep his job. His condemnation was far too swift for the offense.

On Monday, Jon Stewart announced his impending retirement from The Daily Show on a high note, having built up immense trust considering the satirical nature of his program. (As if to provide a foil, Williams dropped from the 23rd to the 835th most trusted American celebrity in the week preceding Stewart's announcement.) A lot of people are wondering who should replace Stewart, and I wonder, too; the most obvious choice might be Larry Wilmore, who's impressed me so far on his show. Yet if Comedy Central is looking to be as progressive in its choice for host as Stewart has been in the program, a woman should run the show (as some others have already suggested). Some have doubts, probably because there's a pervasive stereotype that women aren't funny in our society. Women also get interrupted more on talk shows, when they're on them at all, and having a female host on a major late-night program would be a simple, sensible, and effective way of combating these issues. And to be clear, yes, they're issues. I won't say that women specifically are funny, because that would be a similarly absurd categorical statement about gender. I know lots of women who are funny and lots of men who aren't, as well as women who aren't and men who are. Like pretty much everything else, humor isn't gendered.

Bob Simon, a well-respected veteran CBS correspondent, was killed in a car crash Wednesday at 73; hist obituary on CBS can be found here. I can't say I was familiar with him, but his loss seems quite unfortunate indeed.

David Carr, the brilliant media reporter for The New York Times and its self-described public face, wrote a great article on commonalities and contrasts between Williams and Stewart on Wednesday, one of many of his gems; another, from November, was on how the media, including Carr himself, enabled Bill Cosby to survive rape allegations for so long. He also wrote masterfully about Williams' fall. Carr tragically passed away on Thursday, collapsing in the Times newsroom at just 58. I knew him in life as a columnist with enough memorable articles that I recognized his byline, but there was much, much more to the inspiring story of a recovered drug addict and Hodgkins' lymphoma survivor, and he was truly legendary among his colleagues. His Times obituary, along with links to a host of other tributes, can be found here; may he rest in peace.