WASHINGTON – Everybody in the business of journalism makes a mistake now and then or deliberately embellishes his role in the drama of reporting on history. The tendency to exaggerate or overdramatize one’s participation in covering major historic events is always there whether in the written or spoken retelling.
But when you’re the richly paid anchor of a major television network speaking nightly to 9 million viewers, you had better resist the urge especially in an age when your bosses have established you as the gold standard in news trustworthiness and you actually believe them.
Here you are on the top of the heap, reading what your correspondents and a battery of researchers provide you and suddenly it is discovered that the experiences you bring to the job aren’t quite as good as you’ve made out. You just may not be the stainless recorder of the events that “alter and illuminate” our times, as the man who invented that persona, Walter Cronkite, used to say.
So, Brian Williams of NBC has taken some time off to weigh the consequences of not really telling the truth about his experience as a war correspondent and the chronicler of events in and around New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This while a “team” of the net’s editorial experts examines if there are more gaffes and whether he should continue in his exalted role as the 29th most trusted American, according to Reader’s Digest poll last year.
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The indication from him is he will return. That is, if somewhere in his past he hasn’t proclaimed that he was with Douglas MacArthur when the general made that statement. That would be harder to explain actually than the one about being under fire in a helicopter in Iraq which never happened or watching a body float by his French Quarter luxury hotel in a relative few inches of flood water etc, etc, etc. Much of the betting is that he can’t overcome the damage already done. Rarely has the Internet been more flooded with negativity about a journalist.
What we’re talking about here is less a matter of trust than of credibility – a far more fragile quality that once questioned is hard to recapture particularly in this age of unrelenting social media, which obviously played a major part in exposing his inconsistencies. There were just too many around these claims who could dispute them and the ability to reach the masses with their doubts.
He had little choice but to confess his sin and plead for forgiveness. So would I with $10 million a year at stake.
Television after all is still first and foremost an entertainment medium that turns its anchors into actors, using floods and hurricanes and wars as props for staging their nightly 20 minutes of air time. Here is the trusted anchor standing in waist-high water dramatically telling everyone there is a flood. Or as a longtime colleague reminded me, being dressed in a bush jacket and sporting a pearl-handled revolver in a shoulder holster. The great war correspondents of the past, like Cronkite, would be appalled … I hope.
If this sounds like sour grapes from an old newspaper man, I apologize. But the Hollywood aspects of electronic journalism have never enthralled me. The lack of experience in the craft is amazing. An old friend said one learns quickly the difference between visiting a war zone and covering it. Following the troops is one thing and just talking about them quite another. It’s the difference between Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow for those who still remember.
The next few weeks for Williams will be crucial. As I was reminded, the whole thing is about numbers. If the geniuses who run the network news division profit centers find the ratings slipping, Brian is likely to be out there anchoring specials or doing his storytelling for one of the cable outfits. It is ever thus in this glitzy business where the “reporters” that become more important than those they are covering.
It won’t take the network bosses long to find some “Lawrence or Loretta Lovely” to build into a superstar ready and willing to learn how to interview the rock person of the moment or stand in the midst of obvious chaos, explaining to us of the poor benighted class that “the situation is chaotic”… in trustworthy tones.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.