The stunningly fast descent of NBC News anchor Brian Williams over a gross embellishment of his 2003 reporting of the Iraq invasion, has prompted a very public discussion between media professionals and the public about journalistic integrity and personal branding in an image-driven medium. Here we have the oldest of news mediums (the Stars and Stripes newspaper) scooping a story by closely following the socially mediated conversations of their core audience (U.S. troops and veterans) in a new medium (Facebook and Twitter) that ultimately serves as a corrective of network television news media.
Some have noted that the public esteem for the giants of television news past (the Walter Cronkites and the Edward R. Murrows) has been irreversibly damaged by the more recent prevarications of Dan Rather and now Williams, not to mention the increasingly dominant partisan media of cable news. In addition, the concreteness of television’s visual image, which in the past naturally lent itself toward audience perceptions of authenticity, has been superseded in the hyper-real era of Photoshop, CGI, reality television and advertising saturation for younger generations of the audience with a highly developed sense of the inauthentic (and even cynicism).
Unrelated to the Williams story, Maker Studios’ chief content officer Erin McPherson, speaking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix on Monday, said this about advertising to millennials: “The new authority is authenticity.” For McPherson, this statement was about old brands taking the risk to allow new media content creators, the kind Maker Studios fosters, to communicate about brands authentically in order to cultivate greater brand loyalty through their strong audience relationships.
I couldn’t help but take her statement, “the new authority is authenticity,” and comment on the challenge this presents to network television news in cultivating younger audiences. Perhaps more than any other major news network anchor in the past decade, Williams had managed to build a new audience among millennials–owing to his winning personality, engagement with popular culture and compelling storytelling. It turns out, however, that there may be little difference between the plying of his story craft and the army of Photoshop “artists” that create hyper-real super models in today’s advertising. With word today of Williams’ six-month suspension from NBC, his road to reclaim audience trust should be paved with authenticity. The question is, what does authenticity look like now?