It turns out that NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been embellishing his stories about his experiences covering the invasion of Iraq, putting himself more in the center of the action and acting as if he was in more danger than was the case. Since I long ago gave up on expecting the major news networks to give us any, you know, actual news, the fate of highly paid news celebrities like Williams and their sponsors does not affect me in the least. But this issue does illustrate some interesting points.
His supporters have suggested that all of us have false memories and that politicians like Hillary Clinton and Ronald Reagan also spoke about events in wartime that never actually happened and questioned why Williams is being treated more harshly.
Both assertions are true but there is a special responsibility that applies to reporters more than to politicians and the rest of us. The reason is that the prime purpose of having reporters risk their lives and go to hot spots is not for their analysis or insight. It is to serve as eyewitnesses to actual events. A reporter’s words “This is what I saw. This is what happened” is what carries weight.
Good reporters know that even things one has actually witnessed can get blurry soon after, and that is why they carry notebooks to write down what they saw before their memories play tricks on them. It is the failure to do this basic act of reporting, or at least to refer to those notes if he took them at all, that is Williams’s main offense.
The Daily Show gives its own take on the story.
(This The Daily Show clip aired on February 9, 2015. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)