Robin Williams Death Unleashes ‘Experts’ As Media Improvise

Robin Williams Death Unleashes 'Experts' As
Getty Images/Robin Marchant

The first email of the morning, not surprisingly, was a pitch from a publicist to interview a “life adventurer” whose uplifting message could provide “some timely insights into the Robin Williams tragedy.”

It never fails. An unexpected death or breaking news event unleashes the culture vultures – those eager to cash in, publicity-wise, on the frenzy and chaos that ensues in the need to help explain, define and advance such stories. And with surprising regularity, media outlets under pressure due to ratings and traffic concerns will grab the nearest available warm body, frequently without much vetting in terms of qualifications, legitimacy or particular insights about the issue at hand.

The Williams story, with its multiple threads, is one especially rife for “expert” abuse. That’s because in addition to being a breaking news story where many details remained sketchy before Tuesday’s news conference by Marin County authorities, the discussion encompasses his career and life as well as his struggles with addiction and depression, inviting speculation as to what would have prompted him to take his own life.

While it’s almost too obvious to mention, the speed of the Web is a huge and relatively recent complication in these instances, virtually eradicating any opportunity for thought or reflection, and leveling the playing field between TV and print.

Extensive live coverage also tends to breed missteps. With more time to fill than information to share, an anchor like Fox News’ Shepard Smith can easily say something imprudent by bringing the word “coward” into the conversation when details are still scarce and emotions are running high.

To a lesser degree, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin can be forgiven for indulging in hyperbole on Tuesday, but it was still a bit much to introduce a clip package by saying “all of America fell in love with Robin Williams” — and hardly represents a slight to the actor’s memory to acknowledge that no, not everyone did.

In-house “experts” also yielded a mixed bag of comments. Asked what triggers suicide, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta wisely prefaced his remarks by saying, “Searching for a complete explanation is a fruitless sort of task.”

By contrast, Fox News turned heavily to Dr. Keith Ablow, who appeared on the network Monday evening and on Tuesday’s edition of the morning-discussion show “Outnumbered.” Ablow seems willing to register an expert opinion on just about anything, pivoting from what role Williams’ childhood might have played in his depression to the need for the U.S. to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq to suggesting First Lady Michelle Obama is too overweight to be a credible spokeswoman regarding nutrition.

The mad scramble to find sources, fast, can lead to fuzzy thinking. On Monday evening one news outlet contacted Variety seeking a journalist who could share “personal stories” about Williams. But unless a writer spends extensive time with an actor doing a profile, just how “personal” are those anecdotes apt to be – culled, as most would be, from a few fleeting moments at a press junket?

The shocking suddenness of Williams’ death has produced an outpouring of interest, and media – including Variety – have understandably sought to feed that hunger, advancing the story however possible. What’s too often missing, though, in the crush to keep the conversation going is context, credentials, and any certainty whether Williams could pick someone claiming a close personal connection out of a lineup.

As evidence of how the screening process can break down one need look no further than the pranksters who regularly find their way on the air during breaking-news coverage, including – in just the last month – embarrassing incidents involving MSNBC and KABC-TV in Los Angeles.

In that respect, it’s worth remembering that when confronted with a story like this one, media outlets – with varying degrees of success and credibility – are frequently left doing the very thing for which Williams became so famous: Improvising.

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  1. Jacques Strappe says:

    Apparently, “celebrity”, “depression” and “suicide” represent the trifecta of subject matter opiates for the paid media “experts” and the billions of Robin Williams’ closest bff’s on social media. Severe depression is a tragedy for anyone who experiences it, celebrity and otherwise. Millions of people battle severe depression daily and for some the torment is too much to go on living with. If Mr. Williams were as loved as the sheer number of social media posts would lead one to believe, his movies would have set box office records and his television appearances would be ratings gold. I find most of this social media outpouring of grief obnoxious and self serving, not unlike the response to the death of Steve Jobs and Whitney Houston. Even the surfeit of celebrity twitter posts, many of whom didn’t personally know Robin Williams, appear to be disingenuous and meant to appease their respective twitter account followers. How did everyone cope before social media and 24/7 cable news coverage? Sometimes, sending a personal note expressing ones sympathy to the surviving members of a family is the best and most heartfelt course of action. For everyone else who didn’t personally know Robin Williams, enough already! Time to deal with your own personal problems affecting people you actually know and care about…and hopefully not through a Facebook or twitter post.

  2. Becky says:

    I agree. His death was very very sad. But I heard one DJ on Sirius radio proclaim today, his death “Rocked the nation!” I would say the Kennedy assassination rocked the nation, this did not. The media just gets ridiculous.

  3. pops07 says:

    Enough, already. Didn’t we already fill up with the Whitney Houston glut? How about stories of the people who were strong enough to resist alcohol, drugs and suicide.

    • Frank W says:

      So @pops07, you think you could survive at least a 35 year beat down of personal pressures and disappointments and your mind working against you all the time, every success other’s see is still a disappointment to you? Look at the clip CBS This Morning has of Robin from last September where he’s riffing their trademark. At the end, he meekly accepts their thanks, like he doesn’t deserve praise. Once you think of the possibilities of suicide, every day is a gift. There is never a cure. It is a daily fight, hopefully overcome, but it wears at you and then new and unexpected pressures throw down again and again. Though maybe you’re sick of hearing about him, he did a lot of good for people that was never publicized. There is a big chunk of the country that has been rocked by his passing. Those he touched through his acting, comedy or just for being a great person.

  4. Excellent observations Brian!

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