I’m guessing Brian Williams has had better mornings.
For those new to the story: On several occasions, the well-known NBC anchor claimed he was aboard a military helicopter in Iraq in 2003 that was forced down by enemy fire. He repeated the story last week.
Several veterans challenged Williams’ account, saying the broadcaster and crew actually rode a trailing chopper, not the one that took the enemy round. This week, he admitted the error and apologized for it.
We don’t know how or why Williams got the story wrong. We do know it isn’t the first time a public figure has embellished a resume, or a personal history. Politicians do it a lot. Experts claim college degrees they never earned. Artists, chefs, athletes, businessmen and women have all faced public scorn for lying about their private lives.
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Still, Williams’ error seems particularly troublesome because he’s a journalist. The public, already deeply skeptical about what we do, may now have their deepest suspicions confirmed.
For this, Williams has no one to blame but himself. As a one-time TV guy, though, I think the mistake tells us something important about reporting and the current media environment.
Anyone who has worked in television news will tell you parts of it are based on artifice: appearance more than reality. When a reporter nods his or her head during an interview, or walks down the hallway with an interview subject, the goal is to present an image of reality, not reality itself. The very act of surrounding stories with “live shots” at the empty school or outside the burned-out home is based on a perceived image of excitement, not on any real journalistic need.
The best TV reporters — and we are blessed with lots of them in Kansas City — resist this. They’re still committed to finding and broadcasting the best version of the truth they can find, even if the demands of the medium require occasional, um, embellishment. You know: “good TV.”
Maybe this is where Brian Williams stumbled. Ask yourself this: Why was he in Iraq in the first place?
NBC has plenty of qualified journalists who can and have provided first-rate accounts of wars around the globe. NBC’s Richard Engel may be one of the best reporters ever, routinely exposing himself to danger to bring Americans important news. Other reporters for other organizations do the same thing, every day, at genuine personal risk. They deserve our gratitude.
But does anyone think Williams went to Iraq primarily because he has reporting skills uniquely valuable in a war zone? Or was he there, at least in part, because NBC wanted to project an image of its future anchor* fearlessly confronting an enemy — an image that had little to do with actual reporting?
We can all answer that question, and so can Brian Williams. He’s in trouble now because he and NBC forgot the most important truth about journalism: Only the story matters. The reporter should not.
Which is why he’s had better days.
*Williams was named main anchor at NBC in 2004. An earlier version implied he was the anchor at the time of the 2003 incident.