It’s always nice to stand out from the crowd. In this case, it’s because I may be one of the few people who will not express much of an opinion about the Brian Williams matter, even though I have spent my adult life in TV news. First of all, so much of the outrage actually has come from blowhards who have themselves gotten away with exaggerating their own backgrounds. Secondly, the business is permeated with malarkey, from the claims made about television stations being “on your side” to the use of consultant-driven hyperbole like “breaking” and “exclusive” to a whole raft of claims that have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with deceptive marketing. Let me mention that I appear once or twice a week on MSNBC, and I’ve met Brian. Neither has anything to do with my belief that he is paying far too great a price for all this.
Nevertheless, it’s the simple kind of issue that is much easier for us to ponder while avoiding the heavier lifting of thinking about more important matters.
Let’s take what’s happening in Alabama for instance, where the state’s Chief Justice Roy Moore is telling probate judges, way down on the legal food chain, that they should refuse to obey a federal court order that same-sex marriage must immediately commence. Even when the U.S. Supremes refused to grant a stay, Moore has been instructing the officials not to do their legal duty. His argument is that the federal judge has violated the state’s laws and the Constitution by ordering gay marriages, so they should defy what came from the federal district court.
Sound familiar? Well it does to those who remember the dark days of Jim Crow, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama and tried to block entrance to two black students, and who is remembered for an inaugural speech where he shouted, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
He, too, was among those insisting that the state’s laws trumped federal court orders. We see how well that went. Come to think of it, Roy Moore apparently hasn’t, because he’s making the same argument now. It’s similar to his confrontation with the federal government in 2003, when as state chief justice he refused an order to remove a big slab displaying the Ten Commandments that he had placed in his courthouse. He wasn’t willing to comply, and First Amendment considerations simply didn’t matter to him. He ultimately was removed from the bench back then, but spent the years thereafter running for governor and losing, and even started the mechanisms for a U.S. presidential campaign. It didn’t get off the ground, but in 2012, he was elected once again to be Alabama’s chief justice.
Obviously he hasn’t learned a thing from his own experience, or history for that matter. In fact, he disputes the argument that what he’s doing now parallels the brutal oppression of blacks in his state back in the day. “This is not about the right of people to be recognized with race or creed or color,” he insists. “This is about same-sex marriage. It is not the same subject.”
Those who are taking him on say it’s a different subject, but just another target for bigotry. Alabama and George Wallace symbolized the darkest segregation back then, and Roy Moore is exploiting the state’s continuing resistance to progress all these decades later.
Back then, the nation’s attention was forced on the outrages of Jim Crow by tenacious TV news people dedicated to exposing wrongs. These days it’s usually triviality contrived by the media to which we react — or in the case of the Brian Williams’ truth-stretching, overreact.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.