The line between fact and fiction in journalism is often blurry, but now NBC confirms it. As Lance Morcan writes in the Orphan Conspiracies: “on television, high profile reporters [have] become bigger than the story, delivering news with large dollops of personality and wit--almost as if they are actors.”
Brian Williams, head anchor of NBC’s nightly news, is the latest TV star to prove the point. He is in the doghouse for saying that his helicopter was shot-up and forced down during George II’s Iraqi war, and that bodies were floating below his Bourbon Street hotel window during Hurricane Katrina.
In the last decade, he’s often repeated these and other stories. Sure made for riveting TV drama... until the fact checkers came to town.
I had hoped Mr. Williams would man up and confess his peccadillos. But that does not happen in this era of categorical denial, responsibility shirking, and implausible excuses. When confronted with the truth, he just couldn’t remember what had happened in these life and death circumstances. He must have unwittingly “conflated” (what?) several events. Funny, as a kid, I got shot at with a BB-gun and once saw a corpse; I will never forget either moment.
So he embellished a few good stories to make them more personal and dramatic. What’s wrong with that? We all lie at one time or another. Hells bells, President Clinton was impeached for perjury. My Uncle Jack Tracy often admitted to telling “little white lies” to spare hurt feelings. People often exaggerate and sometimes fabricate stories to entertain, win arguments and get their way. One online dating poll found that 81% of people “misrepresent physical facts about themselves.” And, guess what? We are not much better when writing resumes or sitting in interviews.
But shouldn’t thought leaders, who get paid to give us unbiased, balanced news, speak the truth--all the time? They are, after all, watchmen on the walls of democracy. Maybe I’m too idealistic. But we need more objective news people, like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and David Brinkley. They were always trustworthy reporters of network news.
Alas, we rarely find such objectivity in the vast media wasteland of sensationalized sex, violence, and pop culture stories- often read by attractive but ditsy bimbos and himbos.
Mr. Williams’ mistake is not an isolated lapse in judgment. His is a symptom of our postmodern breakdown in ideals and integrity. Especially in mass market outlets. News, like entertainment, has become big business that makes billions for media moguls. Says David Baldacci, “Forget verifying facts, get the story out now...; he who gets there first defines truth.” The duller the story, the lower the ratings. Broadcast reporting, it appears, is becoming a child of big business, not ethical journalism.
The pressure is obviously there to hire personable journalists who are good storytellers. Mr. Williams fit the bill when he took Tom Brokaw’s chair in 2004. To his credit, he has delivered the news with honor--most of the time. The standard however is to mirror--not distort--reality all the time. Reporters, as Camus once said, “should always tell the truth,” no matter what the consequences.
As for Mr. Williams, perhaps a dose of real combat reporting would be a fitting reprimand. How about 90 days on the frontline with Kurdish rebels fighting the headhunting ISIS menace in the Middle East? No need to embellish incidents over there. And he could indulge his fantasy of being embedded in a real combat story.
Photo credit: https://collinbwyke.wordpress.com
Jack T. Scully is an entrepreneur and writer who resides in the beautiful Champlain Valley of northern Vermont. Active in the Vermont high-tech community, he is also a novelist, poet, and blogger. His Pilgrim's Rest blog contains inspirational essays, original pictures and media -- all designed to foster universal kinship and tolerance, peace and love, self-reliance and simplicity. His novel Eyewitness is available at Amazon.com and is currently being presented for hardcover publication.