Brian Williams: Old men of little concern to millennials

Brian Williams: Old men of little concern to millennials

Millennials already assume the media is lying to them. So what's the big deal about Brian Williams?

NBC News Anchor Brian Williams with Chinook helicopter in background.
NBC News Anchor Brian Williams with Chinook helicopter in background. (Composite image)

SAN DIEGO, March 2, 2015 – Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News received near universal criticism over his frequent “misstatements.” Those “misstatements” are now widely considered to have been lies−embellishments and fabrications meant to hype his fabricated heroism in the midst of dangers he allegedly faced covering the war in Iraq.

Williams’ phony heroism has been ridiculed across a wide spectrum of political and demographic opinion. But interestingly, the one demographic that has stood out for its silence on the issue or that has in some cases even been sympathetic to the veteran broadcaster is that younger population group we call the “millennials.”

I began to notice something was different in this group when two members of my radio show team,The Price of Business, could not understand what the “big deal” was about Brian Williams and his phony heroism. They simply couldn’t “get it” when it came to the chorus of outcries hurled against Brian Williams.

I found this view from my staff to be very interesting, so I asked around a bit. Although my informal research on this issue is largely anecdotal, I learned enough that I was motivated to pose some questions to those possessing a bit more expertise on millennials than I. Reaching out to several experts, I received a considerable amount of interesting feedback.

Carole Lieberman, M.D., a leading psychiatrist and author, informed me that “millennials don’t have as much difficulty accepting his [Brian Williams’] exaggerations of courage and prowess because they are more likely to have done the same themselves. There is an erosion of truth in America that has especially affected millennials, since they haven’t grown up in a culture where honesty and hard work were as highly valued as they once were.

“Instead,” she continued, “many millennials have grown up in a culture where everyone gets a prize, where shortcuts to goals are the norm, even if it means lying a little or stepping on someone else’s toes. So, Brian Williams seems like just one of them, who believes the ends justify the means.” This seemed like a harsh assessment. But, although Dr. Lieberman is not a part of the generation under discussion, her view is not isolated.

Millennial marketer and entrepreneur Naresh Vissa said the attitudes of millennials towards the Williams flap are really a reflection of their thoughts about the network, Williams’ news show and the media. Vissa said, “Millennials don’t care about the Nightly News. There are better alternatives to old-school news shows” in their opinion. “Millennials get their information from social media and trendier news outlets, such as Business Insider, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post… [These outlets] attract millennials [with] their style, content and design.

“Brian Williams made a mistake,” she noted, “but he gets a pass because he’s out of millennials’ radars. Jon Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert resonate more with millennial audiences.”

It would be interesting to see if millennials would have the same casual attitude about Stewart or Colbert if they behaved like Williams. On the other hand, these celebrities and virtually all the information sources millennials seem to prefer make a living by obviously and purposefully misinforming their audiences. It’s all part of the “skit” or “routine” they are performing.

It would seem likely, then, that millennials do not see Williams as anything more than another entertainer−just another flavor of Stewart and Colbert.

Kate Wilson, a blogger who writes for JetFeeds, focuses on providing career and finance tips for her “fellow wandering 20-somethings.” She was very blunt and to the point on the Brian Williams controversy. “Frankly, millennials just don’t care about the controversy surrounding Brian Williams,” she said. There’s nothing to forgive, and it’s already been forgotten.” Continuing, she noted,

“First of all, millennials don’t and probably have not ever relied on news broadcasts for their news. That a paragon of the traditional news has been discredited has no bearing on their media consumption because they don’t get their news from news broadcasts anyway.

“Second of all, there has always been a prevailing distrust of news broadcasts and traditional institutions among millennials. Between the WMD debacle of the early 2000s and the Great Recession, most millennials have no reason to trust traditional institutions, including media networks. This distrust, coupled with the rise of social media and smartphones, causes many millennials to turn towards their own social networks for their news. That a news anchor has been proven to be dishonest is not news to a millennial.”

In other words, the institutions, including media, are seen collectively by millennials as liars. So why would anyone be surprised that representatives of these institutions would end up doing the same thing? Such a viewpoint is notably cynical. But it appears the signature Baby Boomer mantra, “don’t trust anyone over 30,”  a 1960s battle cry, remains alive and well in 2015.

Brent Busboom, a Reno, Nev., high school English teacher (AP English lit, senior English) for 15 years, gave me a fresh perspective−direct from the front lines−on how young adults currently think.

“Thanks to the Daily Show and Stephen Colbert, the millenials I teach are more clear-eyed and cynical about bias and exaggeration in journalism. They see Brian Williams’ stories about being shot down in a helicopter, or getting dysentery, as something unfortunate, but expected. In their eyes, Williams’ lies aren’t nearly as important as the failure of the media to thoroughly investigate the Iraq war, a war in which they’ve seen some of their friends die. As one student told me, ‘What do I care if Brian Williams was really shot down in a helicopter?” Besides, I bet many of the people in the media criticizing him have skeletons in their closets, too.'”

We live in a very different world today when it comes to the perception of the media. Those coming of age before the millennial generation saw a very clear line between journalism and entertainment. That line has become a blur to the younger generations, and the reasons should be obvious by now.

In addition, millennials’ so-called flexibility when in comes to parsing moral absolutes makes it much easier for them to forgive a journalist who behaves like an entertainer. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, it’s easy to see there is a distinct possibility that, once this younger generation begins to move into the nation’s leadership, the continued viability of the news media itself may very well be in question.

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