Brian Williams has morphed into Tourist Guy, aka the Ground Zero Geek.
A little history: A few days after the 9/11 attacks, an image began circulating via email (I know — quaint, right?) of a man posing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center with an American Airlines plane bearing down on him.
Attached to the forwarded image was this message, misspellings and all:
This picture was developed from film in a camera found in the rebble of the wtc!!!!!! Person in picture still not identified.
Almost immediately, the debunking began: How did the camera survive the crash? Why was the guy dressed so warmly on a late summer day? The deck wasn't open yet. Wrong kind of plane.
Once Tourist Guy was revealed to be a hoax, the real fun began. At first, makers of digitally altered photographs (photoshoppers) began subbing out the aircraft. Instead of a jet hurtling toward the tower, it was a commuter train, or a hot air balloon, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from "Ghostbusters."
Then jokesters began transporting Tourist Guy to the scenes of other disasters: the sinking of the Titanic, the crash of the Hindenburg zeppelin, President Lincoln's box in Ford's Theatre, President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas. And so on.
Now Brian Williams is showing up at some of these same locations. If the NBC News anchor was on that helicopter that was forced down in Iraq in 2003, mightn't he have been in the limo with JFK and Jackie? Or aboard the Titanic? Or on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, crossing the Delaware with George Washington, partaking of the Last Supper, riding with O.J. in the white Bronco or my favorite, dancing in a shark costume beside Katy Perry at this year's Super Bowl?
A few years back, I dubbed this phenomenon "newslore": folklore that riffs on whatever's going on in the news. In the 1970s, time-wasting office workers photocopied and distributed hand-drawn cartoons. In the '80s, they began faxing them to friends in other offices. In the '90s came emailed jokes and humor websites, photoshops and animated cartoons. Now Facebook posts, Youtube clips and tweets have largely supplanted email attachments.
Newslore functions as folk political commentary. Its visual manifestations are amateur versions of editorial cartoons. Its favorite target is hypocrisy. If there's a dominant recurring message, it's this: Our emperors are stark, raving naked.
Not surprisingly, presidents and candidates for president or vice president have born the brunt of these unmaskings. President George W. Bush, in particular, had the bad luck to serve when photoshopping became a mass phenomenon. Classic photoshops show him reading a children's book upside down (the guy can't even read!), and the two Presidents Bush sportfishing on the flooded streets of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (can you believe how insensitive and out of touch these guys are?).
The most inviting target after Bush 43 was Sarah Palin, who frequently turned up in cyberspace toting a rifle and wearing an American flag-patterned bikini.
But the news media has also come in for its share of ridicule. Saturation coverage of grim events like the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, or the deaths of celebrities such as Princess Diana and Michael Jackson eventually exhausts the patience of viewers and breeds a sneaking suspicion that the story is being milked for its ratings — boosting value rather than its continuing newsworthiness. And so comes the backlash, usually in the form of tasteless jokes.
The arc of the Brian Williams affair has been entirely predictable: exposure, followed by an insufficiently apologetic apology, followed by cyber mockery, followed by an internal investigation and a temporary "stepping away" on the part of the miscreant.
It's too soon to say whether NBC will allow Williams to return to his chair on the set of the "Nightly News." But the corporate honchos don't need a weather vane or an opinion poll to know which way the wind is blowing. The cyber folk have reached a verdict: The guy's a joke.
Frank teaches journalism ethics at Penn State University and is the author of Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet.