The Digital Journalist
Two Sides of a Coin:
Brian Williams and Ted Jackson

by Ron Steinman

You are about to read the story of two different men, both journalists. One is Brian Williams, the anchor for NBC Nightly News. The other is Ted Jackson, a staff photographer for the New Orleans Picayune.

Each man covered the first days of Hurricane Katrina. Each told the story of his experience in his own words his own way. Brian Williams had his say in a documentary on The Sundance Channel. Ted Jackson did an interview on videotape for this publication, The Digital Journalist. The following is my very differing impression of each journalist's testimony.

Brian Williams

First, I want to thank NBC News for giving me the opportunity to peer inside Brian Williams' soul in the documentary "In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina," recently seen on The Sundance Channel. Without this chance to really know the man behind the slick mask he usually wears, the audience and I would not be privy to the gravitas he so desperately craves.

The half-hour documentary appeared on Oct. 27, a Thursday. I waited this long to comment because I needed time to think about the ramifications - some subtle, others not - about the broadcast produced by NBC News about its star anchor Brian Williams, starring none other than Brian Williams himself.

As a documentary, it is not very special. Most of the footage is not new. Some is, but because we have seen so much, it is hard to tell what is fresh and what is not. The documentary, perfunctorily produced, has little energy. There is no verve or creativity anywhere in the half hour. Much of it is a regurgitation of previous clips from NBC Nightly News and the Today Show. When these appear on the screen, they resemble nothing less than promotions for those shows and NBC News. By the way, NBC Universal has a stake in The Sundance Channel, a good reason for airing there instead of on the network.

Williams covered the first five days of Hurricane Katrina and did his job well, as we say in the trade. He came away, according to what he said, a changed man.

In the documentary, he sat in a single chair, on what I can only call a fake set, most likely designed to give the audience the feeling that Williams was allowing it to see the ropes and pulleys of what constitutes backstage in TV. Looking slightly off-camera and never speaking directly to the audience, with his tie askew and not a hair out of place, he regaled us with stories of what he had seen, especially when he was inside the Superdome with thousands of the hurricane's victims. It was a difficult time, and not pleasant for anyone, including Williams and his team.

Williams, visibly shaken by the events of Hurricane Katrina, as were many of the reporters covering the story, apparently wants to share with us his vulnerability as a man and a journalist.

View The Digital Journalist's video interview with Ted Jackson

Video still by Dirck Halstead
Sorry, Mr. Williams. There are no free rides in real journalism. If you are so angst-ridden over Katrina, go fishing, play golf, and yes, hug your kids, the ones you tell us you love so much, but please do not foist your personal life on us. You should not share that angst you have with your viewers who only want to know the story you covered. Also, do not believe for a minute that anything you did during the hurricane made a difference to the people or the moribund Bush administration. Many already have too many other problems without being co-dependent on yours.

Wait, though - to me there is a powerful subtext in this documentary. Brian Williams tells us of his ability to suffer with those less fortunate, that he can share their pain and anger. Beneath all his other words, he is saying, look at me, I am special, I have gravitas.

Gravitas does not come easily. It is a haunting word. We hear it in connection with political leaders, clergy, and philosophers, even journalists. Gravitas is something one must earn. It is not a mantle a person can bestow upon oneself. No one is born with gravitas, though it comes more naturally to some than others. Look at some of its meanings: Important. Weighty. Serious. Formidable. Solemn. Somber. Sober.

Brian Williams tries in this small film to show us that he is indeed deep and that his thoughts have additional meaning through his own suffering and the suffering he saw in others during Hurricane Katrina. It does not work. I really do not want to know the innermost thoughts of everyday working journalists, which Williams wants us to believe he is. Despite his elevated anchor status, and his success in the ratings, even when on the road, he is still mostly a traffic cop, leading us from one story to another, as are all anchors for all the networks.

The anchor is not first among equals, but … first, only because he leads the news show and helps drive it from one story to the next, and then to its conclusion, all in the name of the time in which the news show exists. Period.

In this age of growing transparency in news, most of which is important, I prefer anchors on TV to remain anonymous. Clearly, NBC would disagree with me and that is why his bosses allowed him to appear in this short documentary. It is not important to me to know their life stories or how much they love their children. Brian Williams told me more than I wanted to know, thus distancing him even further from my mind than before.

NBC News' not too subtle try to coat Brian Williams with gravitas does not work. Maybe this is the stuff of a memoir on retirement. Not for now, though. For me this documentary is a blatant attempt by a powerful network to create an aura of gravitas around an anchor where none exists, except in his dreams and those of NBC News.

In December, The Digital Journalist presented a video interview with photojournalist Ted Jackson of the New Orleans Times Picayune. Lately I have been looking for connections. Some are apparent; others are not. Either way they are an important part of critical thinking. When they appear, I wonder why I did not see them sooner. The interview with Jackson gave me the connection I needed to shore up my theory about the Brian Williams documentary.

As I said, I found it a strain to watch Williams pontificate on his phony set with only what I can call false humility about what he saw and experienced during the first few days of Hurricane Katrina. He did not move me. Ted Jackson did because of his natural humility.

In a videotaped interview in a room with no frills, and in close-up, Ted Jackson, a staff photographer with his newspaper, tells us about the first harrowing days he and other journalists experienced covering the effects of the hurricane. As he was working to cover the story of his life, he tried to understand what had happened to New Orleans and the people who lived there, crushed by the harrowing experience of having been overrun by nature.

There is no elaborate set as in the Brian Williams documentary. There are no self-indulgent cutaways of NBC News such as those used in the Williams documentary. There are occasional cutaways of Jackson's photos.

Ted Jackson tells his story quietly, speaking straight to the camera. At times I thought he was on the verge of tearing up, something we do not expect from a professional. Ted Jackson emerges as a thoughtful and feeling man dedicated to his profession. There are lessons in journalism and lessons in survival, but nothing he says is didactic. He talks about fear and uncertainty as he and other journalists maneuvered their way through the destroyed city. At one point, during those first days, his raw, though calm emotion showing through, and he admitted, "I wanted to go. I don't want to live like this. I want a normal life. I want to cover these things and go home."

I can tell you from experience, he was not alone thinking that because it goes through the minds of any of us who have covered major events that have often been beyond our understanding.

Toward the end of the interview, Ted Jackson tells us that everything that went before is "Pre-K: Pre-Katrina. This is our story now," he says. "This is our life." He takes the following from an AP journalist and makes it his own mantra. "This will be the last story I will work on for the rest of my life." Then he says very quietly, "It will be with me for a long time." I have no doubt he is speaking the truth.

Ted Jackson has the humility and the natural gravitas that Brian Williams does not. His superior, unassuming story-telling wins the day.

© Ron Steinman

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on "Today" and wrote and produced for "Sunday Today." At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner Award, a National Press Club Award, an International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards and has been nominated for five Emmys. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of "The Soldiers' Story," "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.