At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama.
There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of pointless, ill-informed blathering, everyone seemed to agree that NBC's national security reporter Pete Williams was a hero. As Politico reported, "Inside the studios of NBC, Williams is being widely referred to as a hero." "Pete Williams Becomes the Reporting Hero of the Boston Bombings," said the Huffington Post. "NBC's Pete Wililams: Media Hero of the Boston Bombing Coverage," said the Atlantic Wire. Other outlets didn't use the "hero" word but still rushed out laudatory stories about Williams.
So what exactly did he do to deserve the title of "hero"? Did he catch the bombers himself? Perform an emergency amputation on a victim? Run into a burning building to save a baby on his way to Boston police headquarters? No. For starters, he obviously had good sources within the Boston Police and/or FBI from whom he was getting accurate information, which allowed him to repeatedly say things that turned out to be true, and avoid saying things that turned out to be false. He was also careful to avoid speculating on things he didn't know anything about. That's really about it. Good journalism, yes. But heroics?
So is this what it has come to? Are the rest of the media so desperately bad at handling breaking news events like the Boston bombing that anyone who displays the slightest bit of professionalism and forbearance is treated like he deserves the Medal of Freedom? I guess so.
I'm sorry, but Pete Williams is not a hero. You know who was a hero? Anthony Shadid. And Anna Politkovskaya. And Marie Colvin. Those journalists put their lives at risk to bring out stories that needed to be told, and died in the act. You can read about them and hundreds more like them here. Pete Williams went on TV and refrained from making an ass of himself. Good for him. But let's keep this in perspective.