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My answer to the question, “So is Brian Williams really an idiot, or does he just play one on TV?”

In the Comments thread to my post yesterday about a comment that Brian Williams made the day before indicating that he apparently does not know what “the debt ceiling” actually means, reader SW asked: “So, is he really an idiot or does he just play one on the tv?”

I answered:

I hadn’t thought of Williams as a lightweight before, which is one reason I was so shocked that he apparently doesn’t know what “the debt ceiling” actually means.  I rarely watch the network evening news shows anymore, but when I do, It’s his show that I watch.  The CBS and ABC ones seem to have made a concerted effort to play to conservatives, I guess because the audience for these shows these days is so largely white elderly folks.  

There was a good Opinionator piece in the NYT yesterday by a Philosophy prof. named Jason Stanley, called “Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs,” about how the misleading language used to discuss these things–which actually are specific facts–leads to dangerously false analogies and misunderstandings by the public, fed by deliberate misrepresentations by pols. (The article engages in a misrepresentation of sorts, itself, by equating Repub misrepresentations with Dem ones, but, oh, well.)  But Williams isn’t any old member of the general public. How can the main news anchor for NBC Nightly News not know what the debt ceiling is, and think it’s something that it’s not?

Williams’ Wikipedia bio is surprisingly sparse about his professional background, but my guess is that he’s never been a hard-news reporter on anything really complicated.  He apparently came to prominence by covering Hurricane Katrina for NBC News–hardly a complicated news event requiring knowledge beyond what the general public has.  But it just really surprises me that he apparently doesn’t even read the NYT or the Washington Post on major, complex stories such as the debt ceiling thing.  

Oh, well. This isn’t the era of Walter Cronkite.  So, what else is new?

I watched [Williams’] show again last night, and near the end he did a wonderful story on something dear to my heart: The Puppy Bowl.  The dogs all are rescues, up for adoption. Again, nothing complicated.  But, at least in my opinion, important.

Brian Williams Thinks Raising the Debt Ceiling Means Increasing BUDGET APPROPRIATIONS. O Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, and Edward R. Murrow, Where Art Thou? — [UPDATED]

I watched NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams last night.  Big Mistake.

Big mistake.

Because now I’m really confused.  I was pretty darn sure until then that “raising the debt ceiling” meant allowing the Treasury Department to pay financial obligations already incurred, such as interest on bonds, Medicare payments, and contract obligations, and to allow continued payments for ongoing financial obligations such as Social Security payments, Veterans’ benefits, and salary payments to federal employees, some of whose jobs are sort of important.  (Think: air traffic controllers.)  I had thought that because I had followed the recurring-crisis news reports about it since 2011, when the first of the crises began.  And because Obama had actually explained it in his Jan. 14 press conference.

But now, well, I think I might have misunderstood, because after Williams reported that the Senate yesterday had approved the House bill to “suspend” the debt ceiling through May 19, he added, shaking his head in disapproval, something like: “This is Washington’s version of kicking the can down the road.  Our debt is now more than a trillion dollars.”

I suggest that next time Williams is onboard one of NBC’s corporate jets, he might read, say, Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times.  It doesn’t explain the difference between the debt ceiling statute and budget-appropriations statutes, so Williams will continue to conflate the two until he digs deeper and reads earlier Krugman columns or other mainstream-media articles that did that.  But it does (yet again)–to borrow a phrase from Paul Ryan in his Meet the Press interview aired last Sunday–debate the efficacy of Keynesian economics, and whether anti-Keynesian “austerity” measures reduce or instead increase national debt in real terms and, more important (although Williams apparently doesn’t know this), decrease or instead increase debt relative to GDP.

But if he is going to wait until he’s up there in the air in that Learjet to read the Krugman column, I hope the trip occurs before May 20.  


UPDATE: Additional recommended reading for Brian Williams: Joe Scarborough, Paul Krugman and the economist-pundit divide on debt and deficits, Neil Irwin, Washington Post, yesterday.

Scarborough, though, at least knows what the debt ceiling law is, and that it isn’t the same as budget-appropriations legislation.  He does, after all, work for MSNBC, not, say, NBC News.