Brian Williams Outruns the Learning Curve

In the world of network news, Brian Williams may well be the earningest man around—and also the learningest.

But his use of “NBC News has learned” (and “We’ve learned”) leaves him burned.

Those expressions about learning imply that NBC dug up a story and is the first to report it. At its best, the term is ambiguous; at worst, it’s false. Why is learned so popular with newscasters? Maybe they think it helps to hook listeners and to hold them.

Several of broadcast news’s biggest names are the biggest learners: they tell us they’ve learned this or learned that. And though they usually imply they’ve learned something important, what they’ve learned is often not new, or not true, or not theirs alone. And NBC has learned about many a story long after it’s broken.

Take the White House announcement of the awarding of a Medal of Honor. On June 1, 2011, Brian Williams told his audience: “We’ve learned an Army Ranger will be receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, for his heroic actions in combat in Afghanistan. He is 31-year-old Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry from Santa Fe [in which state? The Santa Fe in Texas or Ohio? Even Minnesota has one; the AP stylebook lists 30 large cities that don’t need to be accompanied by states; Santa Fe is not one of them], married father of four. He lost a hand throwing a live grenade, saving three American lives, including his own. [An enemy’s grenade had landed near Petry. When he threw it back, it detonated and blew off his hand] Petry will receive the Medal of Honor from President Obama in a ceremony July 12th. He will be only the second living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam era. There are 84 living recipients now.”

Although Williams introduced the story with “We’ve learned,” CBS News had posted a story about Petry’s award 24 hours earlier—at 6:20 p.m., May 31. The AP moved a story a few minutes later, at 6:31 p.m., ET, on May 31.

On May 26, Williams also had a learning experience:

“NBC News has learned that Pakistan has agreed to let the C-I-A send a forensic team into the compound where bin Laden was killed by those Navy SEALS to search for any al-Qaida materials that might have been left behind—items that could be buried in the walls, buried on the grounds. Pakistan’s cooperation here [where does here refer to?] may be a sign that tensions are easing a bit over that secret mission and the kerfuffle it caused.” (May 26, 2011)

NBC News has learned? That slyly suggests that NBC was breaking the news. Not so. More than four hours before Williams’s newscast, Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, posted an Associated Press story about the Pakistani development at 2:14 p.m. In fact, five hours before Williams said NBC News had learned of the story, a National Public Radio (NPR) blog reported that news at 1:34 p.m.—five hours before Williams’s newscast. As for Williams’s script, search is too far from forensic team. (The closer the verb follows the subject, the easier for the listener to follow.)

The previous night, on May 25, Williams used the same learning gimmick, “From our Pentagon outpost, NBC News has learned President Obama has made his pick for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey….” NBC News has learned sounds like an NBC News exclusive. An hour and a half before Williams went on the air at 6:30 p.m., EDT, the AP moved the story on Dempsey’s selection. The NBC script’s made his pick sounds like tabloidese, which is not a compliment.

As for Williams’s liberal use of learned, every story on “Nightly News” is something NBC’s news division has learned. Even some NBC correspondents use “NBC has learned.” On Nov. 25, 2009, Williams said, “We first learned word of the president’s upcoming [upcoming makes some listeners think of an undigested meal] trip to Copenhagen this morning from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.” Learned word? Those two words just don’t go together like that. They sound like something that might be said by the unlearned. At 6:10 a.m., had posted a brief AP story that the president would be going to Copenhagen. At 9:38 a.m., the New York Times had posted an article on the president’s decision to go to Copenhagen. Eight hours before that, at 1:16 a.m., ET, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency had posted a brief story.

Williams went on to say of Guthrie, “Tonight she’s learned something else….” Then Guthrie said: “NBC News has learned that the president has made the decision [it was a decision; better: has decided] on strategy for Afghanistan and troop levels….He will make this announcement [better: announce them] Tuesday night, as you said [a time waster], 8 Eastern Time, at West Point….Now [unneeded] we still don’t know the exact number [no need for exact] of additional troops the president will send. It’s expected to be in the tens of thousands, military officials expecting a range near 30,000….” A single number is not a range. A range in that case might extend, say, from 25,000 to 35,000.

Despite all that learning, the equivalent of blaring trumpets, her report didn’t break any news. Eight hours before her report—at 10:26 a.m. that day–the New York Times posted a story saying the president was going to announce his decision at 8 p.m., Tuesday, at West Point. Subsequent postings elaborated. Seven minutes before the Times’s first posting about West Point, posted a much longer story. Both the ABC and CBS evening newscasts that day reported the Obama-West Point story while Williams was reporting the results of his learning. Guthrie has recently been promoted to co-host of the third hour of the “Today” show. She’s also the show’s chief legal analyst.

Brian Williams could stand some learning: When George Mitchell, President Obama’s chief representative to the Middle East, resigned, Williams said on his “Nightly News” (May 6, 2011) that Mitchell is a former secretary of state. Not true. Mitchell has never been secretary of state. Has Williams corrected that misinformation? Not yet.

Two CNN anchors who tamper with the time, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, are still at it. At 10 p.m., EDT, May 6, 2011, Cooper said on his one-hour program, “Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees,” “In other breaking news, there’s also, already, been a U-S strike against at least one of the key al-Qaida figures who could make a bid for that leadership. Tonight, we learned, a United States military drone fired a missile some time within the past 48 hours in Yemen aimed at the U-S-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.” But more than four and a half hours before Cooper delivered that breaking news, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer reported the story on CNN. The Huffington Post reprinted a Reuters story at 6:01 p.m. reporting the drone attack on al-Awaki,

Blitzer had begun his “Situation Room” at 5 p.m., EDT, by saying, “Happening now: details of a reported safe house used by the C-I-A to spy on Osama bin Laden….” Happening now? The National Journal posted a Washington Post story about the CIA safe house one day earlier, May 5, at 9:08 p.m.—20 hours before Blitzer called it breaking news.

At 11 p.m., when Cooper’s one-hour program is replayed, any story that he has already called breaking becomes an hour older. No problem. After all, anchors who exploit breaking and learned with abandon apparently see them as much too good to abandon.

© Mervin Block 2011