Brian Williams: Is ‘Off the Record’ Dead?
NBC's anchor/blogger presides over ASME political mag panel.
NEW YORK—Brian Williams, the anchor, managing editor and resident blogger of NBC’s Nightly News broadcast, moderated a panel on political magazine coverage at the annual American Society of Magazine Editors members’ luncheon at the Hearst Tower on Wednesday. And, as anyone who’s seen Williams outside of his 6:00 news role can attest, he was funny, bitingly sarcastic and utterly, if oddly, poignant when discussing the relevance of magazines in 2008.
Williams opened the panel—consisting of Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi and New Republic senior editor Michelle Cottle—by asking "How does the Democratic race … end?"
"In a pool of my own blood in a hotel somewhere," Taibbi quipped. Taibbi said he had been assigned two political obituaries by Rolling Stone just as Clinton was winning key primaries, which were eventually killed.
"The Clintons have moved the goalposts so much they’re off the field," said vanden Heuvel. The media, she said, "is going to play a big role in deciding this race."
Taibbi agreed: "Voters take their cues from the media."
"Only in America," Vanden Heuvel added, "can a black man who was paying his student loans off 10 years ago come off as elitist."
But is the election good for the magazine business?
"Political magazines tend not to be profitable," Cottle said. "[But] in a good horse race, more people pay attention." But the pace of coverage-specifically competing with the Web-has "turned us into wire copy reporter," she said. "It’s put tremendous strain on staff."
When van Heuvel explained that the Nation was "aggressively pursuing many platforms" including branded cruises, Williams stopped her. "Please explain what one does on a Nation cruise," Williams demanded. When van Heuvel revealed that Jackson Browne would be the entertainment on the next one, Williams interrupted: "That is going to be one off the hook boat ride."
But Williams edged into potentially damaging territory for a panel in the midst of covering a race that doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. "When did the world-class lying start?" he asked Cottle, referring to the spin control coming from the campaigns. Hillary’s campaign, she said, is famously tight-lipped. They know that lying, if done properly, "can get you elected."
The Nightly News anchor then asked if "off the record" is "dead or in critical condition."
"There’s a sliding scale," Cottle said. "If you’re in a big room, you have to realize that nothing’s sacred."
Taibbi added: "It’s a new reality—we haven’t really defined the ethics."