CategoryNews Media

The Real Brian Williams is a Talk Show Host

NBC’s Brian Williams, officially deposed from the anchor chair on NBC Nightly News, will be picking up some news-related duties on MSNBC.

I’d rather see Williams co-hosting a semi-serious late night show with now-retired David Letterman, along with regular guest appearances by Tom Hanks and Steve Martin.

Is demotion to MSNBC a suitable punishment for Williams’s Crimes Against Journalism?

My friend, the TV historian Wally Podrazik, called my attention to a Washington Post article that compares Williams’s crimes to other journalistic misdeeds.

► Why don’t more journalists face the music like NBC’s Brian Williams?

Says reporter Paul Farhi:

George Stephanopoulos, Bill O’Reilly, Fareed Zakaria, the gang at Rolling Stone magazine — all have faced Williams-like turns in the barrel. And all have emerged perhaps chastened but very much steady as they go.

Of the transgressions recounted by Farhi, I believe the Rolling Stone article is 100 times worse than all of the others. Neither Brian nor Bill told stories that screwed up the reputation of people or institutions. The Rolling Stone article was a mess and a bunch of people should have been fired because of it.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of irony in the Williams story.

First, everybody is saying Williams was “demoted” to MSNBC. The fact that people think it’s a rat hole should be much more worrisome to NBC than whatever Williams did.

Second, in the recent interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Williams says something about realizing in retrospect that while he carried the mantle of “NBC Nightly News Anchor” during the broadcast itself, when he left the studio and headed over to David Letterman’s set he was a different person, or forgot that he had the most prestigious job in America or whatever.

Who is the real Brian Williams?

So…compare Brian on Nightly News with Brian on Letterman. Who is the real Brian Williams?

I suggest that the Letterman Brian Williams is the truth, while the NBC anchor desk version of Brian Williams with his white handkerchief in the vest pocket — that was an act, and a pretty good one, too.

The proof is that while on Letterman’s show, Williams thought he could relax and say whatever he wanted to say. His performance on Nightly News was no less scripted than a lead part in a Broadway play where the actor is playing someone other than himself.

That’s what NBC strives to deliver to the public.

But how much of the public? Let’s round up all the people who have written about Williams in the past six months and ask if they actually watch the Nightly News. Do you?

I happen to like Brian Williams. Who’s to say if he is a true journalist? The output of Nightly News is the product of a lot of people. Did he slant the news? Did he swing the tide of a war the way Walter Cronkite did?

(Slanting, of course, is the job of MSNBC. So maybe they’ll encourage him to exaggerate his stories.)

Give Brian Williams a talk show

If Letterman un-retires, wouldn’t you like to see him doing a talk show — focused on serious conversation with a big dose of humor — along with Brian Williams? Let’s add Tom Hanks and Steve Martin, too, with a good guest list. For those of us who fondly remember Tom Snyder and the late-night interview show Bob Costas did for a while, a Williams-Letterman fest would fill a void.

Talk show or not, as with Letterman and the sexual misconduct that would have gotten anybody else fired and eviscerated by the public, Williams is too big of a talent to let go.

With any luck, when he gets to MSNBC he’ll resurrect that short-lived show called Rock Center. He’ll build some kind of an audience and it will include me.

At some point a big, gripping national story will break. Lester will put in his 12 hours on the anchor desk. When he goes home for nap, Brian will happen to be in the studio and suddenly he’ll be subbing at the anchor desk for Lester. The network viewers will remember that they liked Brian, and they’ll forget why he was demoted and that’s that.

Just ask Marv Albert.

The Day I Quit the Best PR Job in Chicago to Start My Own Company

Exactly 15 years ago — on Feb. 1, 1999 (my birthday!) — I walked away from the best PR job in Chicago.

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Jonathan Lehrer,  Gov. George Ryan

Former Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan (before he was governor and before he went to the slammer) thanks me for my service on the Safe Trucking Task Force (1991).

This is still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

This is still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

Keeping the media and public informed about Chicago-area highway projects.

Keeping the media and public informed about Chicago-area highway projects.

This is still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

This is also still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

Frightening thought: More than 15 years later, I'm still wearing that hat and coat.

Frightening thought: More than 15 years later, I’m still wearing that hat and coat.

Jonathan Lehrer marks 15 years as an Internet communications consultant.

Welcome to the Internet of 1999. Using my then-new Web site to explain why I walked away from the best PR job in Chicago. (Click the image for a readable version.)

At the AAA-Chicago Motor Club I was vice president of public affairs, nearing my 18th year of service. As spokesman for the company, I was occasionally seen and heard on TV and radio offering tips on cold weather driving, gas prices and traffic safety; I was regional editor of the club’s travel magazine; and an active participant in a number of government and community committees and task forces.

It was my annual practice to bring a cake for the office on my birthday. (It was also my practice, on days that were not my birthday, to wander from department to department all around the building, foraging for other employees’ b-day goodies.)

On this particular occasion, I instructed my staff to refrain from cutting in to the cake until later.

I had been planning this day for some time.

For the previous few years, I had been doing some free-lance work for several Jewish organizations and a small business. That business was owned by my long-term friend, Joe Sameh, who sensed (before I did) that it was time for me to move on with my life. He offered me a part-time position, with a computer, an office, a phone and a health-insurance plan. Too good to pass up, right?

In pursuit of poetic justice, I targeted my birthday as Day One of my new career. It was not unusual in many companies for a resigning exec to be stripped of his company stuff and escorted to the door by security. I had no reason to think that would happen to me. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, I copied files from the computer I thought I might need and surreptitiously took home my Rolodex and other personal items. I also cleaned out the company car that was assigned to me and arranged for my wife, Estee, to pick me up at the office in case the car was taken away.

After depositing the aforementioned cake on top of a file cabinet to discourage hungry staff members from jumping the gun, I called Zoe, the executive secretary, to get me an appointment with the company’s president, Rich Bensen.

What would I tell him?

Shove it! (Or maybe not.)

Truth is, I’d been thinking about a rhetorical approach best described as “take this job and shove it.” On advice of a few friends, though, I took a different tack.

“The story of my time at AAA has had many chapters,” I told Rich. “It’s time for me to write a new chapter.” I told him of my desire to try working on my own, and of the opportunity my friend Joe had put in front of me.

Rich didn’t beg me to stay. Instead, he shocked me by offering a consulting agreement to help me get started with my new venture.

With that, I went back to my department, took the cake out of the box and told everyone “I have an announcement.”

While Rich may have seen this coming, my staff was completely shocked. They had expected I’d spend the rest of my life there. Which was exactly why I left.

During my nearly 18 years at AAA, I had gotten pretty good at challenging myself creatively, finding new ways to manage annual programs, avoiding the trap of rehashing and recycling. But that wasn’t enough.

For me, the security of a corporate job with benefits was outweighed by the world of possibilities just outside the office door.

As a newly hatched consultant, I ended up working directly with Rich several hours a week, helping him identify a replacement for me, creating his presentations for the board of directors and facilitating the update of the company’s strategic plan. When Rich’s AAA career ended abruptly two years later, my consulting deal ended, too.

Clients from A to Z

But by that time, with Joe Sameh’s support, I had developed a solid client base. I never could have imagined that my creativity would be applied to everything from associations to zinc manufacturers.

It’s fun (to a point) to contemplate the successes and challenges of the past 15 years. But even today my career wanderlust still beckons me to a world beyond my Gmail inbox, a world populated by interesting clients, rewarding projects, smart business partners, new technologies and endless creative possibilities.

Meanwhile, I could really go for a slice of that cake from 15 years ago.

For My Birthday, Please Pronounce “February” Correctly

Who put the “you” in “February”?

This is my month and I wish you would pronounce it correctly.

My birthday — the first of the month — ushers in 28 (or 29) days of the most mispronounced period on the calendar. I understand that marketers are trying to personalize their message by inserting “you” in everything, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept Feb-YOO-ary.

February pronunciation

Who put the "you" in February? I don't see it anywhere in there.

Yet professional newscasters and announcers lately have succumbed to widespread adoption of this error. Given the amount of time broadcasters historically have spent in bars, you’d think they could pronounce a word that has “brew” in the middle.

In honor of poor February — short, cold (except for 2012) and mispronounced — I am declaring it National Let’s Stop the Mispronunciation Madness Month.

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National Weather Service Caves in to Chicago TV Weather People

Perhaps I missed the Call for Entries in an obscure award competition, but is someone giving prizes for the worst snowstorm in history?

Maybe Chicagoans are desperate for another national championship (after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup), or possibly we just want potential visitors to know we have The Worst Weather on Earth.


Regardless of whether it was the third or fourth worst blizzard in Chicago, my car was still buried under a lot of snow.

The Chicago Tribune’s Rex Huppke reported that a “meteorological coup broke out” when “For a short time Friday (Feb. 11), the National Weather Service tried to shave 0.2 inches off the Blizzard of 2011’s snowfall total and downgrade it from the third-worst snowstorm in Chicago history to the fourth-worst.”

The weather “coup” shared the Trib’s Saturday front page with news of Hosni Mubarak’s reluctant resignation. (Might as well note that the Tribune’s layout staff missed an opportunity to run this head over both stories: “Emotions boil in Cairo while Chicagoans freeze.”)

Huppke reports that the National Weather Service decided to classify the recent blizzard, which dumped a hundred feet of snow on my car, as two snowstorms, not just one. This effectively reduced the officially recorded depth of the snow. Then, in a moment of meteor-illogical revisionist history, the weather service went into the record books and re-calculated the snowfall total for the 1979 blizzard.

At a time when they should have been trying to forecast when (if ever) the snow will melt, Chicago’s TV weather folk got on a conference call to express their displeasure with the weather service’s Jim Allsopp, complaining that the change in ranking would “shake the public’s confidence in weather forecasts,” as the Trib put it.

“It’s a psychological thing. What are people going to think?” WGN’s Tom Skilling is reported as saying.

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