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.