Commentary

What A Long, Strange Media-Death Week It's Been

It was an uncanny week of sudden death and public loss for the media. First, the shocking items about major “news” people that were disclosed minutes apart: beloved fake anchor Jon Stewart was leaving his post at “The Daily Show” after 16 years, having become the most trusted name in news; and, after making a mess of his bungled apologies and giving himself a short leave from NBC, the very likeable anchor/war story embellisher Brian Williams was suspended without pay for six months. Both felt oddly final.

Williams also had his name stripped off “The NBC Nightly News” logo in all its forms. Shame-wise, that part seemed to be the equivalent of an epaulette-ripping scene in a foreign legion movie.

Then, as if to put all the gnashing of teeth over truth, memory, and accurate reporting in perspective, the hugely respected “60 Minutes” foreign correspondent Bob Simon, who reported from war zones and was taken prisoner for 40 days by the Iraqis during the Gulf War, was killed in a car crash on the West Side Highway. It was a trip he had made thousands of times on his cozy home turf.

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We hardly had to time to process Simon’s untimely passing when, into this bizarre eruption of raging media fates, boom, came the news of the passing of David Carr, the 58-year-old sui generis media reporter and all-around cultural genius for The New York Times.

I knew him only slightly via email exchanges, mostly from a long time ago during his time at Inside.com, but still thought of him as a friend (as did almost everyone inside and outside his orbit.) I hate the word “guru,” but Carr was an absolute wizard about the rise of social media and Internet privacy. Just hours before his collapse in the Times newsroom, he had tweeted about a sold-out panel discussion he’d moderated that evening with the makers of an Oscar-nominated documentary about Edward Snowden and Snowden himself (via Skype). And Carr’s death was announced by an inadvertent tweet from someone in the Times building.

He joked that he had a “face for radio.” But Carr had clear eyes, and a unique voice, in every sense. In a literal way, he spoke in a strange gravelly rasp, with an accent heavy on the flat vowels of the Midwest. And figuratively, he had an unequaled ability for uncovering media muck in the by-now-ancient shoe-leather-detective sense. He also had the rigor, experience, and ethics to make the story fair.

Carr had certainly suffered some unthinkable lows in his own life, and had more compassion than your average reporter bear. He even reported on his own junkie history in his best-selling memoir “The Night of the Gun,” with the same mix of grit, wit, and tenacity that marked everything he did.

As if to add to all the irony, Carr’s sudden death seemed particularly unbelievable after Carr had “owned” the Brian Williams story all week. He was the perfect writer to offer his own definitive take about Williams’ Shakespearean fall from grace. Indeed, his words on the subject were still floating around in the air and on the Net.

So what were the odds that Carr and Simon would die one night apart, at the same New York City hospital, both so suddenly? That part of the story reminds us most of our own mortality, and what we can control, and what we can’t.

The single bit of congratulations this week goes to Jon Stewart, who seemed especially energized in a way that he hadn’t been for several years in absolutely nailing the Brian Williams story. Obviously, Williams has been a ratings-gathering guest many times at Stewart’s desk. And Stewart’s piece started with the usual outrage, which turned into blame for the entire mainstream media’s lies about Iraq. Brian Williams is the only one who got punished, was the takeaway. In the end, Stewart said, it’s all “Al Capone’s vault.”

He was right. To me, that thought made the future of all media seem especially depressing.

Yet these deaths also showed what sheer hard work and an understanding of humanity can do. In the big picture, it’s less about who sits in what chair, and more about getting at the truth -- and not sabotaging ourselves -- while we still have the chance to do it.

18 comments about "What A Long, Strange Media-Death Week It's Been".
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  1. Fred Pfaff from Fred Pfaff Inc., February 13, 2015 at 3:02 p.m.

    "In the big picture, it’s less about who sits in what chair, and more about getting at the truth -- and not sabotaging ourselves -- while we still have the chance to do it."
    Amen. Great piece, Barbara!

  2. Susan Patton from Susan Patton, February 13, 2015 at 3:09 p.m.

    Does anyone on the planet write with more insight, industry knowledge, wisdom and humanity than Barbara Lippert? I think not. Although I miss Barbara's saucy humor in this piece, it is brilliant and insightful writing.

  3. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, February 13, 2015 at 3:11 p.m.

    Thanks, Barbara. It has certainly been one for the books. As for David Carr, I took him so for granted. Who else do I take for granted? Well, you and many of the talented writers I read regularly. I will be more grateful. As for Jon Stewart, his wrath really came through and I was made furious, again, along with him.

  4. Ellen Considine from SwartAd, February 13, 2015 at 3:12 p.m.

    I think you should fill that sadly vacant spot at the NYTimes. I always love your writing and insights.

  5. Michael Draznin from Draznin Consulting, February 13, 2015 at 3:15 p.m.

    Memorable column, Barbara. Couldn't agree more with your quote that @FredPfaff highlighted in his comment above: "In the big picture, it’s less about who sits in what chair, and more about getting at the truth -- and not sabotaging ourselves -- while we still have the chance to do it."

  6. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, February 13, 2015 at 3:26 p.m.

    Wonderful piece, Barbara.

  7. Anne Levin from Witherspoon Media Group, February 13, 2015 at 3:45 p.m.

    This is so beautifully written, Barb. I agree with the comment that you should fill that sadly vacant spot at the Times.

  8. Rich Badami from Badami Consulting, February 13, 2015 at 3:50 p.m.

    Deeply sad on so many levels.The legacy of Simon and Carr cannot be questioned. Williams, on the other hand, has destroyed not only his career but has done serious damage to the credibility of all broadcast journalism. I can't imagine the network ever putting him back in that chair.

  9. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, February 13, 2015 at 3:52 p.m.

    I'm not ashamed to admit that I read everything David Carr wrote with admiration. Such perception and wise analysis of the times we live in, delivered with eloquence and irony. I emailed him often to tell him so, and I will really miss him.
    And yes, Barbara, you always deliver the goods as well. Thank you.

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 13, 2015 at 4:07 p.m.

    Barbara, you know how to get to the gut via your gut. Bravo for helping us understanding so clearly with such exquisite expression.

  11. Steven Lentz from Lifevideos.com, February 13, 2015 at 4:17 p.m.

    Excellent commentary Barbara. I did not see any of Williams reporting from Katrina because I was there, holed up outside the Sheraton Hotel on Canal St which was temporary police HQ, reporting for KFWB news radio, Los Angeles. I walked the streets of the French Quarter speaking with survivors and parts of the Garden District, both above the flood since each is 10-12 ft. above sea level. Water started on Canal about 12 blks north of the river, I do not believe any bodies were floating in the French Quarter--it was convenient way for Williams to name a spot a lot of people knew.

  12. Jim English from The Met Museum, February 13, 2015 at 9:43 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara. Bob Simon was my favorite "60 Minutes" correspondent. I tried to tell him so when I happened to run into him at a Columbus Ave. restaurant. I was a bit flustered and my attempted greeting showed it. But Simon was as gracious as I was awkward Thanks again for that, Bob.

  13. AC Winters from ACWintersEsq, February 13, 2015 at 11:41 p.m.

    Barbara, what a tremendous article. You summed up the parade of horrors for those of us who live and breathe for the media. The 2 deaths which followed the earlier "losses" put things in better perspective, but you wrapped it up better for me than I could have hoped for. I am still upset. The feeling is not going to pass anytime soon.

  14. chuck phillips from chuck inc., February 14, 2015 at 12:16 a.m.

    You have a way with words, Barbara.
    Thank you.

  15. Susan Klein from Oculus Marketing, February 14, 2015 at 4:48 p.m.

    The turn of sad events this week is almost 'All Too Much' to quote another rock song. May the loss and grief impel us to take a moment's pause from the social media churn to reflect, appreciate and express love to those in our own orbits.

  16. Mark Burk from BRANDnv, February 15, 2015 at 12:40 p.m.

    There is indeed a touch of poignancy in this random, odd confluence of circumstance. In many ways Carr was Stewart's doppelgänger in truth-telling. Certainly, both held up a critical lens and took a sharp scalpel to the workings of the media beast -- and Williams and Simon were among its luminaries. Now two are gone forever (one from each side of the fence), and the other two have futures yet to be determined.

  17. Kate Berg from Collective Bias, February 15, 2015 at 5:21 p.m.

    Barbara,
    I must concur with Ellen Considine and others. NYTimes would be graced to have you. Hell, NBC News is hiring as well. Too soon? Sorry, I am inspired by the thought of a turn NOT for the more depressing but for the better. I don't want to be too anxious to write off broadcast "news" though we all say that ship has sailed. Haven't Jon Stewart and others proved there is room for intelligent, insightful commentary with our broadcast news? Not to mention others before like Murrow and Friendly (yes, I know, way before) show that news and a moral viewpoint can better than the mainstream dog food that is currently the fashion. Fred Friendly's era proves that there was always tension over paying for quality news but why keep the format frozen in time? I think we're in a particularly bleak moment and the Williams affair might allow some bigger discussions. OK, I'm done.

  18. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, February 18, 2015 at 2:36 p.m.

    I haven't seen anyone else comment on the fact that Channel 13 showed Broadcast News last Saturday night as the classic film in its weekly Reel 13 trilogy. At the heart of the drama is the conflict between Holly Hunter's strong journalistic ethics and William Hurt's more flexible view of what's OK and what's not ("It's hard to know where the line is when they keep moving the sucker"). She ultimately ditches him because outtakes show that he faked his tearful reaction to an interviewee's rape story, or, in his version, replicated for the camera what he'd "almost" done off-camera. "You could get fired for something like that," Hunter yells with disgust. "I got promoted for something like that," Hurt replies.

    Watching the news these days, wincing every time a reporter lards his or her piece with more opinion than fact and cringing every time anchors spend whole minutes jaw-jacking like they were out together at lunch, I don't see much objective delivery of the news anywhere. Brian Williams got nailed for doing what I suspect nearly all of his peers have done at some point. So will he become the scapegoat for all falsehood in journalism, or will he, as William Hurt did in Broadcast News, end up back in the network anchor's seat?

    There was a compromise in the movie -- Hurt becomes anchor, but he declines the position of managing editor, which we learn at the end has been offered to Hunter. So we're left with the idea that even though someone we know to be flawed and not overly bright is the face of American news, there's someone behind the scenes maintaining strict journalistic standards and keeping on-air talent on the right side of the OK/not OK ethical line.

    I may have partly believed that was possible when I first saw the movie in 1987, but I definitely don't believe it today. Somewhere along the way, led by TV news and propelled by anybody-with-Internet-access-can-claim-to-be-a-journalist digital technology, the profession of accurately and objectively reporting the news has lost its way. The passing of Simon and Carr in the same frame as Williams' demise only underscores that.

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