In the 1987 film, Broadcast News, Tom Grunich, the news anchor played by William Hurt, conducted an interview with a woman describing how she was date-raped. The interview was filmed with one camera, facing the woman. When the interview was over, reaction shots of the reporter were filmed. At one point, Grunich manufactured a tear, which was later edited into the interview sequence so that when the interview was broadcast, he was shown with a tear running down his face as the woman described her traumatic experience.
As the movie progresses, the character played by Holly Hunter (Jane), who had become Grunich’s love interest, is unable to tolerate the faked tear. The first time she watched the interview, she interpreted the crying as sincere empathy for the victim. However, when she later learned that there was only one camera at the interview, she realized it was counterfeit. In his review, the late film critic Roger Ebert described the scenario as Tom Grunick being “incapable of discerning authenticity from fakery.” He never thought there was anything wrong with the manufactured tear; it simply made him more “real” to his audience.
One of the great things about Broadcast News is that we see the early stages of the evolution of nightly broadcast news from serious reporting to entertainment; and, the shift from serious newscasters who had a record of serious reporting prior to being made network anchor, to the most important quality being a pretty face. At one point, Hurt’s character acknowledges that he isn’t too smart, doesn’t read much, and never really did any serious reporting. Today, that would make him the perfect candidate for a network news anchor.
The beleaguered Brian Williams didn’t manufacture a tear (at least not that has been uncovered yet), but he did manufacture stories. Stories that were intended to bolster his credibility with the audience; stories that were intended to convince viewers that he was serious about his craft and stories that were intended to show that he was willing to take great risk to report the news. All of which were manufactured.
Several commentators in recent days have suggested that “the ship has sailed” concerning the credibility of evening news anchors and the hope that their broadcasts will, in fact, be a credible recap of the days major events. If that is the case, then the only reason to fire a reporter or anchor is if they can no longer attract an audience. While credibility may or may not impact that, it is quite possible that many of the audience won’t care at all.
As Broadcast News is coming to a close, Tom and Jane were scheduled to take a vacation together. Upon realizing that Tom had faked the tears, Jane refuses to go. As they are standing at the airport, Jane expresses her outrage:
It made me ill. You could get fired for things like that.
I got promoted for things like that.
Working up tears for a news piece cutaway…You totally crossed the line between…
It’s hard not to cross it; they keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?
Fired or promoted? Does it matter that the news anchor manufactured the tear? Does it matter that Brian Williams made up stories? Tom Grunick saw nothing wrong with the manufactured tear. As long as people liked him, that was all that mattered. Credibility be damned. Does Brian Williams care that he manufactured stories? I suspect he will care if it causes him to lose his job, or if the NBC Nightly News has a ratings drop. Otherwise, all that matters is that enough people still like him and he can maintain an audience.