The real problem with Brian Williams


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.)

Comments

  1. lorn says

    The difference is that the real crime against journalism is not Brian Williams flawed recounting of events from over a decade ago. The real problem is people calling positioning themselves as journalists who apply infotainment values to world events that have to be handled and can only be handled correctly if the people have access to information that exposes the facts, and places those facts in historical and situational context.

    As far as I can tell Brian Williams faithfully represented the truth as he understood it and placed it in the proper context at the time. When his reporting was important and timely as a source for making decisions he was as truthful as any. It is sad that after a decade the story has shifted. It is not a great tragedy and this is not going to interfere with the understanding of what is going on in Iraq. We aren’t going to go to war based upon his error. But Williams is an easy target. He has no national backers. He is not a political figure and figurehead of any political party or movement.

    Of course the willfully created lies that got us into the war in Iraq is not given the same scrubbing. No national figures are announcing the tragic loss of creditability for Cheney and the US Bush administration. Fox news makes an art form of lying and there is no redress. Their typical answer is that they are entertainment that just happens to dress itself up as journalism.

    Where is the accountability for the right. Limbaugh lies and becomes a multimillionaire doing so. Newt Gingrich is still a regular guest on the morning talk shows. Cheney still gets a seat at the table. Seems some people lie about issues when the public desperately needs good information and they lose no credibility and are never faced with their lies. Others, like Williams, misremember events ten years after the fact, long after the story mattered, and they get crucified.

  2. astrosmash says

    “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.”

    this is EXACTLY where I am as well…Good to have corroboration!

  3. busterggi says

    Oddly enough the folks criticizing Williams the most had no problem when Ronnie Raygun told stories of his ‘life’ that were plots of movies he had been in.

  4. says

    The real problem is that this is par for the course and they act as if it is an isolated incident. It is all hype and the real reporting is in the alternative news outlets, including many that oppose war and routinely expose the propaganda.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    lorn @ # 1 : No national figures are announcing the tragic loss of creditability for Cheney and the US Bush administration.

    Even US corporate newsertainers conceded the Bush-Cheney gang had blown all that back ~ ’08; apparently sheer passage of time magically restores credibility in the Newsrooms™.

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