That shame came to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams only recently is probably the most surprising news of all. He is the ultimate expression of the celebrity newsperson, overpaid, overdressed, overexposed, over-inclined to be an entertainer all the while asserting a claim to be a top notch reporter. As the NY Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote, “THIS was a bomb that had been ticking for a while.”
Williams was apparently known for overstating his bio. Dowd and others are rightly puzzled why someone already at the top of his particular game would have such a compulsive need to fashion himself into a swashbuckling Hemingway figure. It takes a healthy dose of narcissism for a reporter to have to make himself part of the story instead of just reporting on it. But Williams’ tendency to embellish is apparently of long standing.
Nearly 40 years ago, he talked about how a thief had drawn a gun on him in Red Bank, New Jersey when he was selling Christmas trees out of a truck. He retold the story several times, including in Esquire Magazine in 2005, but local residents, knowing the safety of the neighborhood, doubt it every happened. In 2011, USA Today Williams spoke of rescuing a puppy from a burning house, which in 2005 in Esquire became two puppies. Questions have also been raised about his reconstruction of his experience covering Hurricane Katrina.
So now he’s brought down (or substantially diminished) by the revelation that his accounts of having been shot down in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 are false. He was in a helicopter arriving an hour after the helicopter that was hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). He went on the air last Wednesday to apologize for conflating the events. His statement fell flat, as did his weekend announcement that he would take himself off the daily broadcast for several days. Meanwhile, NBC tries to figure out what to do.
David Carr, writing in the NY Times, says this isn’t a fireable offense because his embellishments “were not a fundamental part of his primary responsibilities.” I disagree. Despite the low standing in which the media in general are held today, integrity is still the coin of the realm in the presentation of the news. How can viewers look at Brian Williams and have confidence in what he is saying? We are no longer surprised when politicians “misremember” certain events, Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, among others coming to mind. But we don’t want that in our journalists, the ones we expect to blow the whistle when politicians do it.
Those calling for him to be fired have to be careful of a certain schadenfreude effect, wherein hard-working folks substantially lower on the pay scale take pleasure in the downfall of a celebrity, particularly one like Brian Williams known in his circles for being pompous. Plus, at one time or another, we may have all embellished to create a memorable yarn out of a merely good story. It may be part of human nature.
My husband’s immigrant grandfather was a fabrics peddler on the New York-to-Boston route during the early part of the last century. He brought his family up on the anecdote of a competitor who, having only cotton fabrics, told an early morning customer seeking wool that the material he was offering was 20 percent wool. In the course of the day, his pitch became 50 percent wool, then 80, then 100. The competitor grew indignant if his assertion was challenged. When my husband and his two brothers were growing up and occasionally prone to exaggeration, their mother would warn the boys, “don’t 100 percent wool it.”
We live in a culture in which, to paraphrase from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “When truth and legend conflict, print the legend.” In other words, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The point is that colorful lore doesn’t always equate to truth. Our news deliverers should present the unvarnished truth, even if prosaic and lacking in entertainment value.
Perhaps Brian Williams came to believe his own lore, to the point that minor embellishment slid into outright lies. Whatever his blind spot, his personal neurosis or insecurity, it’s a problem that shouldn’t reside in the anchor desk of a news organization. NBC needs to acknowledge that, scrap its in-house investigation and engage an independent investigator to deal with Brian Williams, just as CBS dealt with Dan Rather after the latter’s running a fabricated story on George W.’s military service. NBC needs to stand tall, or become irrelevant.
I welcome your comments in the section below.