NEWS AND OPINION:
To put it delicately, NBC News anchorman Brian Williams is now on career hiatus, saying he is “presently too much a part of the news” to be the nightly point man after his claims of facing down a dramatic attack in the skies over Iraq were proven false. The fact checkers are still at work, parsing Mr. Williams’ role in Hurricane Katrina and other significant moments. Meanwhile, he is indeed a part of the news, as revealed by headlines:
“No news is bad news for Brian Williams” (New York Daily News); “Brian Wiliams-gate” (Daily Beast); “Why Brian Williams should resign” (Newsday); “Why on earth is Brian Williams retreating?” (Washington Post); “Survey: 80 percent say Brian Williams should lose his anchor seat” (Variety); “That’s entertainment: Why Brian Williams will survive his NBC scandal” (The Guardian); “Anchor Away” (New York Post); “Brian Williams fate in the hands of NBC brass” (Deadline Hollywood); “Scientists explain how Brian Williams’ memory could have failed him” (Los Angeles Times); “The plan to save Brian Williams” (Politico); and “Dan Rather backs NBC’s Brian Williams” (Breitbart News).
Fans of former President George W. Bush will notice that final headline. Six weeks before the 2004 presidential election, then-CBS anchor Mr. Rather announced he had damning memos proving Mr. Bush did not fulfill his Vietnam War-era National Guard obligations. The documents turned out to be fake and Mr. Rather resigned six months later, after 24 years in the anchor chair.
Meanwhile, Mr. Williams had been scheduled to appear Thursday on CBS’ “Late Night with David Letterman,” but abruptly canceled that plan on Sunday.
Discussions about credibility are percolating as audiences ponder the potential damage to viable news when it is packaged as entertainment, and ramped up by social media and celebrity journalists. Those with long memories pine for a return to somber, no-frills news anchors with a calling to serve the public — armed with facts, and the voice of doom.
“NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division,” writes New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone, and there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top, as one NBC News reporter put it.”
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A POLARIZED PRESIDENCY
Oh, it’s chilly stuff. In the six years President Obama has been in the White House, and average of 79 percent of Democrats gave him a positive job review, compared with 9 percent of Republicans. The 70-percentage-point party gap in approval ratings is on track to be the most polarizing presidency on record says a Gallup study of current and historical survey data that dates back to 1953. If the trend continues, it would be “easily the highest for any president to date,” writes analyst Jeffrey Jones.
George W. Bush is second with a 61-percentage point gap throughout his presidency, followed by Bill Clinton (56 percentage points) and Ronald Reagan (52 points). Things appear less joltingly partisan in previous eras. Consider, for example, that the gap was 41 points during the Richard Nixon administration, 39 points under Dwight Eisenhower, 31 points for Gerald Ford, and 30 points during Lyndon Johnson‘s time in office.
“These increasingly partisan views of presidents may have as much to do with the environment in which these presidents have governed as with their policies, given 24-hour news coverage of what they do and increasingly partisan news and opinion sources on television, in print and online,” notes Mr. Jones. “Operating within this context, Obama is on pace to be the president with the most polarized approval ratings in Gallup’s polling history, surpassing Bush. Aside from the initial two months of Obama’s presidency, Republicans have consistently rated the job he is doing very negatively — to this point, far worse than supporters of the opposition party have ever rated a president.”
MERKEL REVIVES SHUTTLE DIPLOMACY
It’s a bustling business. In her attempts to defuse deadly discord between Russia and Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in traveling diplomat mode, billed as the sole Western official on the planet who has a working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And she speaks Russian.
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Here’s an itinerary: On Thursday, Mrs. Merkel and French President Francoise Hollande met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. On Friday night, she met with Mr. Putin in Moscow. On Saturday, Mrs. Merkel was back in Germany for the big Munich Security Conference, to confer with Mr. Poroshenko and U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden. On Sunday, she staged a conference call with Mr. Putin, Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Hollande, then flew to Washington for a meeting with President Obama on Monday. Then it’s on to Belarus for an emergency summit with all four parties in Minsk on Wednesday.
Mrs. Merkel rejects the idea of arming Ukraine with weaponry to fend off pro-Russia separatists, and warns that Mr. Putin is easier to “provoke” than scare. “I grew up in East Germany, I have seen the Wall. The Americans did not intervene in the Wall, but in the end we won,” she told her audience in Munich.
As the world waits for the White House to eke out a measured reply, Sen. John McCain is forthright. “Too many seem to have forgotten that what has so often made the difference between liberty and tyranny, prosperity and misery, peace and war — is us, not simply our good intentions, or strong statements, or economic influence, but the capability and credibility of our collective power, and our resolve to use that power judiciously,” the Arizona Republican said before the aforementioned Munich audience on Sunday.
“Some say Ukraine cannot defeat Russia militarily. That is the wrong question. The right question is: If we help Ukrainians increase the military cost to the Russian forces that have invaded their country, how long can Putin sustain a war that he tells his people is not happening?” Mr. McCain demanded.
SOMEONE ACTUALLY DOES SOMETHING
There is much talk about improving education. Much talk. Now comes “Choosing Excellence,” an intense, daylong forum at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill organized by Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, who has assembled a thoughtful group to parse out the realities of academic excellence for every American child.
Among those who will weigh in: Sen. Lamar Alexander, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Luke Messer and former Education Secretary Rod Paige — along with state legislators and educators, such as Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education, and Nina Rees, president and CEO, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Policy analysts from the American Enterprise Institute, the American Federation for Children and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice will also be on hand.
POLL DU JOUR
• 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling immigration; 42 percent approve.
• 55 percent disapprove of the way he is handling health care; 43 percent approve.
• 53 percent disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling the threat from the Islamic State; 44 percent approve.
• 52 percent disapprove of the way he is handling the economy; 45 percent approve.
• 48 percent disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling unemployment: 51 percent approve.
• 47 percent disapprove of the way the president is handling terrorism; 51 percent approve.
Source: An AP/GFK poll of 1,045 U.S. adults conducted Jan. 29-Feb. 2.
• Murmurs and cautious asides to firstname.lastname@example.org.