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The big lie of TV news

NBC presented Williams as someone larger than life, then punished him when he turned out not to be.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams made himself the story. I think I know why.

I am a physician and former medical reporter at WBBM-Ch. 2. I had the same role at stations in Minneapolis. In more than 25 years in broadcast TV, I learned two truisms.

•I thought we watched TV news to receive information. We don't. We watch it to experience drama and finality — the comforts of a black-and-white world.

•Truth is no defense. There are myriad ways to tell the same story — all slanted in any direction one chooses.

When I learned the real mission of TV news is to create drama, it was intoxicating. I initially thought my job was to sit behind a desk opining on heart disease. Instead I discovered it was to tell the story of a 35-year-old, hard-driving smoker who needed a heart transplant. Fighting back tears before the camera, he'd tell me how he might never see his young children grow up and how he wished he had made different decisions.

In my day, TV reporters knew the story we were to deliver before we walked out the door. When an assignment editor sent someone to a fire, he didn't just say, "Cover the fire." He said, "Find me the smoke alarm that didn't work for lack of a 25-cent battery. Find me the dog whose barking saved the family's life."

What he wanted was the dramatic element of reality, something that would boost ratings.

For instance, if interest rates go down, an assignment editor might tell a reporter to "find me the young couple who can finally afford to buy their first house." Trouble is the reporter might not be able to find such a couple. After 20 attempts, the reporter might finally find a couple and present them as the norm. Thus, the editor's reality becomes as uplifting as your favorite prime-time show.

Then there are the logistical considerations. TV news producers have to be screenwriters, too. Their shows must provide a balance of fear, hope and resolution. For example, if the news on a particular day was especially depressing , my producer might order me to find something happy to report — a cure for cancer or something.

I hated the deception of TV, that it pretended to reflect the real world. But I loved being a part of it. I was good at it, and it was the most fun I ever had.

Objectivity is the second big lie of TV news.

Back in the day, when Walter Cronkite signed off with, "And that's the way it is," I took him at his word. I assumed the stories I'd seen were the most important in the world. I was too naive to realize they were only the most important stories to a group of liberal, middle-aged, white male editors.

My stories reflected my own worldview. Patients who get medical screening tests and questioned their doctors were saved; patients who trusted too readily and didn't seek second opinions died. That was the reality I presented. But it's not reality.

And boy, did I make enemies! Doctors in the '80s and '90s didn't like these messages of patient self-reliance and skepticism. They'd call kicking and screaming about my "biased" reporting. In my heart I sometimes knew they had a point. I had left out some arguments (for lack of time, I'd tell myself). I could have added this point or that. But I always had a bulletproof defense. I'd say, "Name one fact in my story that isn't true." They never could. That was always my golden ticket.

TV was powerful because I could present any conclusion I wanted by choosing which facts to include and which to exclude.

Pretty soon, assignment editors wanted that power. They told reporters what stories to cover, and how to cover them. Then the news directors wanted that power. They told the assignment editors what stories they wanted covered. By the time I left TV in 2002, the general manager was looking at the daily news lineup, dictating the types and slant of stories that reflected his reality.

The consolidation of power has continued. Now TV stations use staff "realities" as marketing tools. Fox News Channel presents its version to conservatives, MSNBC and CNN to liberals. Viewers can choose the reality that gives them the sense of fairness and resolution they crave. And local stations shape their realities to whatever demographic they're seeking.

I find it very depressing that reality is so pliable and abused and shaped for economic gain. But if I'm to be honest, I find Cronkite and the myth of objectivity even more depressing, and more dangerous.

All of which brings me back to Brian Williams. There are some interesting theories circulating about why he lied. One is that he realized he was a phony. As the newsreader of a major network, he was given enormous stature to go with an enormous salary. Maybe he felt obliged to be the "hero" everyone needed him to be, a kind of cognitive dissonance. I've seen this happen to a few local anchors I've worked with.

NBC presented Williams as someone bigger than anyone can be, then punished him when he tried to be true to that inflated image.

Williams crossed the line when he arrogantly made himself the hero of the world he created.

The truth is that journalism is in the business of "conflating" reality. It always has been. Williams was just too obvious about it.

Dr. Michael Breen owns a Chicago-based medical marketing company. He was a medical reporter at WBBM-Ch. 2 from 1995 to 2002.

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