Sign Up

Brian Williams — Staying the Course

Is Brian Williams stirring up the world of mainstream journalism?

February 16, 2006

Is Brian Williams stirring up the world of mainstream journalism?

During the run-up and immediate aftermath of Katrina, the U.S. and global media were on top of the story, spending massive amounts of time reporting from the site of the disaster.

After a few weeks, the reporting tapered off, as other stories increasingly began to dominate the headlines. The daily reports from New Orleans eventually disappeared for long stretches of time from many newspapers and TV newscasts.

However, one journalist — more so than most of his colleagues — has stuck with the story: Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC's Nightly News. He has pursued the story relentlessly, regularly reporting on location himself.

Mr. Williams succeeded because he told the story of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath from the perspective of individual Gulf Coast residents — as they struggle with bureaucratic bungling and the myriad challenges posed by the rebuilding effort.

Considered soft and nerdy when he took over for Tom Brokaw on December 2, 2004, he has managed to change his image by consistently asking tough questions regarding the U.S. government's lack of an adequate response that could have saved thousands of lives — mostly those of poor and underprivileged Americans.

For all the talk in the U.S. about the declining relevance of the television evening news, Mr. Williams deserves much credit for his focus on not letting the citizens of the United States forget the tragedy and its victims.

He wants his viewers to see the dire poverty and the many other adverse circumstances that have only been exacerbated by the impact of the hurricane.

During all this, Mr. Williams has avoided the tendency of other reporters to let his reporting slip into the realms of infotainment that increasingly passes for news these days.

While many other newscasts turned to other stories, Brian Williams repeatedly went back to New Orleans. He talked to city residents who had just returned to find that many of their neighbors had passed away — and who see their destroyed houses for the first time in months.

For example, on January 24, 2006, Mr. Williams personally interviewed A.J. Perkins, a homeowner from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

At the end of the interview, Williams asked Perkins this question: "Is there a deep lesson you learned from Katrina?" Perkins replied, "We [are] right here in New Orleans in the United States, and we had to go through stuff like this. A great deal of people wouldn’t have lost their lives if people would have thought of everybody as one. I’m just as important as you are."

Beyond this one interview, when watching Brian Williams' evening newscasts one can see his emotional attachment to the people of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf region. It is an emotion for which he has been criticized — for getting too caught up in the story and not showing enough distance.

But he has good reason to keep up the drumbeat of stories on the Katrina aftermath — even when doing so risks losing U.S. audiences' ever shorter attention spans.

Amidst the blatant failure of government at all levels to fulfill its most sacred mandate — to protect its citizens — the task assigned to journalists is vital. It is not to let their failing government off the hook. It is to bring to the public’s attention what is going wrong so that those in charge will be forced to take corrective action.

Unfortunately, the American public has not rewarded his courage and persistence. Even though the NBC Nightly News is still solidly in the lead, its viewership has recently declined by 785,000 people.

And yet, in a time of domestic and international struggles for the United States, U.S. journalism is well served by individuals like Brian Williams. Having the willingness to stick with the story even after other media outlets have moved on to the next celebrity scandal is what can help make the United States a better place — and, in the end, the U.S. government more responsible.