Then and now: Bob Simon in Vietnam; Brian Williams in Iraq.   

There were a couple of reminders this week regarding the state of American journalism.  One reminded us of what it could be, the other of what it has become.

An example of the former could be found in the long career of Bob Simon, the veteran CBS News correspondent, who died tragically in a Manhattan car accident Wednesday night.  He was 73 and there was a certain, bitter irony in his passing, in the back of a livery cab that slammed into a median.  Over a 45-year career at CBS, Simon had reported from more war zones and escaped more close calls than he could count.  But his luck finally ran out on the West Side Highway, far from a distant battlefield.

At the time of his passing, Mr. Simon was celebrating his 16th year with 60 Minutes, where his work won praise and admiration.  A segment from 2012 was one of his best: Simon traveled to the Congo to profile a former airline pilot who decided form a symphony orchestra.  When he launched the enterprise, none of his musicians could read music and few had instruments, but they were undeterred.  For more than a decade, they pursued their passion with an admirable determination.  The piece concluded with the orchestra performing Beethoven’s last symphony in a rented warehouse.  As Mr. Simon, noted (fittingly) at the end of the segment, the symphony “has been performed with greater expertise before, but with more joy…hard to imagine.”

It was vintage Simon; beautifully written and expertly voiced, the product of decades of experience and patience.  Journalism wannabes who covet the big chair at a broadcast network or cable outlet might remember that Bob Simon was a reporter at CBS for 29 years before that promotion to 60 Minutes.  Before that, he cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent, often reporting from the Middle East.  Covering the first Gulf War in 1991, Simon and his CBS crew were captured by Iraqi security forces near the border with Saudi Arabia, after venturing away from a military-run press tour.

For their troubles, the CBS team spent more than a month in the same prison with Allied prisoners of war, experiencing the same deprivations and abuse as their military counterparts.  Mr. Simon later chronicled the experience in a book, 40 Days, but sometimes expressed guilt over the project, noting that his release (roughly) coincided with the return of western hostages from Lebanon, who spent years in captivity.  Simon’s book is a thoughtful, straight-forward account of his time in captivity.  An honest book by an honest reporter.  What a concept.

The current state of journalistic affairs is reflected in the current travails of disgraced NBC anchor Brian Williams.  Anxious to polish his skimpy credentials as a “foreign” correspondent, Williams traveled to Saudi Arabia ahead of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and well, we know what happened next.  The fictitious “downed chopper” incident took on a life of its own, with Mr. Williams telling it over and over again, with new embellishments to enhance his reputation.  The NBC anchor didn’t stop telling his whopper until he was called out by crews on the Army chopper who were involved in the incident.

You know what happened next.  As his employer–and the rest of the media–began to dig into Williams’s tales of derring-do, they found more lies, including his account of watching a dead body float by his New Orleans hotel during Hurricane Katrina.  Never mind that his luxury digs were in the French Quarter–which did not flood–and no one could support his other claims of contracting dysentery from accidentally ingesting water from the storm, or being rescued from street gangs which stormed the hotel.

And the hits just keep on comin’.  While Mr. Williams has been suspended for six months (without pay), and his name has been literally scrubbed from NBC News, his superiors are still wading through reports of additional lies, supposedly told by their former star anchor.  On at least two occasions, Williams publicly bragged about flying into Baghdad with members of SEAL Team 6, and claimed that a member of the elite unit sent him a piece of the helicopter that was lost on the bin Laden raid.  The Pentagon refused comment on the matter, but former SEALs dismissed it as another fabrication, noting that special ops units “don’t take embeds [embedded journalists]” on their missions.

Additionally, questions are being raised about Williams’s reporting during the fall of the Berlin Wall.  At various times, he has credited his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, as being the only anchor present when the wall came down in 1989, but on other occasions, Williams (then a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York) has suggested he was there with Brokaw when the wall first began to crumble.  According to a widely-accepted timeline of events (and Williams’s own reporting for WCBS) he didn’t arrive until 12-24 hours after Brokaw’s first broadcast from the wall.

Once upon a time, there were a number of men (and women) at broadcast news organizations with the same skill set as Bob Simon.  They knew how to tackle complex stories, write a script and narrate it flawlessly, all against deadline pressure.  They reported from battlefields without a huge entourage or military minders, and without inserting themselves into the story.   

Unfortunately, many of today’s media stars have followed a career track closer to Brian Williams than Bob Simon.  This is not to say they have lied about their accomplishments, or embellished elements of a story.  But like Mr. Williams, many could be described as ambitious and more concerned about climbing the TV news ladder than learning their craft.

As we noted in a recent post, Brian Williams resume was a bit thin when he joined NBC News in 1992; in fact, he was barely a decade removed from being fired from his first reporting job in Pittsburg, Kansas. Yet, that early setback was followed by an improbable, seemingly meteoric ascent which included stops at the Carter White House and extended on-the-job training at a station in Washington, D.C.  From there, it was on to Philadelphia, New York and the network.

By comparison, Bob Simon began his CBS career on the assignment desk, after graduating from Brandeis, studying abroad as a Fulbright scholar and working as a foreign service officer.  In the early days, CBS wasn’t sure if Simon had the right stuff to be a broadcast reporter, given his rather pronounced Bronx accent.  Mr. Simon lost the accent and made it on the air covering the news in places like Vietnam, Cyprus and Lebanon.  But he was never viewed as anchor material and didn’t get the 60 Minutes gig until he was 57 years old, when the CBS bench had been depleted by budget cuts, layoffs and retirements.

Brian Williams was already the primary substitute for Tom Brokaw–and heir apparent for the anchor chair–when Simon finally got the coveted slot at 60 Minutes, after 30 years of distinguished work.  That alone speaks volumes about the evolution of television news, and what it takes to reach the very top of that profession.  By the time Brian Williams arrived, it was all about finding someone glib and good-looking enough to bring in the maximum number of eyeballs at 6:30.  Reporting skills and personal integrity were clearly optional.
ADDENDUM:  Bob Simon’s sojourn in that Iraqi prison provided a brief moment of levity for the detainees.  Among those being held was then-Captain Dale Storr, an A-10 pilot shot down by an Iraqi missile.  Storr had only seconds to escape his stricken jet–no time to get off a Mayday call, and his wingman assumed the flight lead was dead.  Predictably, Saddam’s thugs had no interest in providing a complete roster of prisoners, so Captain Storr was listed as KIA; his squadron even held a memorial service for him at their base in Saudi Arabia. 

But the A-10 pilot had survived the shootdown and was taken–along with the other detaineess–to a complex in Baghdad that the Iraqis hoped the coalition would bomb.  And sure enough, it was targeted by Allied aircraft.  Miraculously, all of the prisoners survived unhurt, as the multi-story building collapsed on itself.  Kevin Graman of the Spokane  Spokesman-Review picks up the story from there:

As Storr dug himself out of the rubble he heard American voices, including that of CBS newsman Bob Simon.

“Bob Simon!” Storr thought. “Tell everybody I’m alive.”

“I would,” Simon told him, “but I’m a prisoner, too.”

Storr and other POWs reported the guards sometimes passed on opportunities to beat them, but they never missed a chance to beat Simon.  By various accounts, the CBS correspondent survived in his ordeal (in part) because his Red Cross-issued ID card identified him as Protestant (he was Jewish).  The mistake was eventually uncovered–and Simon was roughed up even more—but the trajectory of the war was already clear, and the Iraqis knew they would have to return captured prisoners.  Their window for killing Bob Simon had passed.