Why the Brian Williams controversy matters

Brian Williams, perhaps the face of NBC as the host of the Nightly News, has been suspended without pay for six months after irregularities with stories he claimed emerged over the last several weeks.  Most notably, Williams was said to have embellished events he experienced during the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, stating he had “misremembered details” or “gotten his wording confused” when confronted by individuals who were able to dispute Williams’ story.  Ironically, Williams had just signed a 10-year contract extension to remain with NBC, the memo for which stated”Brian Williams is one of the most trusted journalists in history.”

Disturbingly, public opinion seems to be split on this matter.  Some are calling for Williams to be fired, banned from news television, and presumably stoned to death.  Others, however, are claiming society is overreacting to the news, his actions aren’t really a big deal, and he should be retained by the company.

So, how exactly is society supposed to react when the 21st century’s Walter Cronkite is accused of, more or less, being a liar?  Well, first it’s worth considering the fact that Williams is a 22-year news veteran.  If the new barista at Starbucks messes up a Venti Chai Latte on her first day, it written off as inexperience.  An eight-year NFL veteran dropping a wide open pass is considered a lapse of focus.  A 15-year bartender who forgets to count her drawer at the end of the night has made a careless mistake.  A 22-year news vet who embellishes a news story is a liar.  And that’s fair.  As level of experience increases, it’s natural to accept  a heavier burden containing more responsibility.  This is expected but mistakes are wont to happen, though.  Citing a source incorrectly is a mistake.  Stuttering on camera  is a mistake.  When facts of a specific instance are knowingly altered, it suggests a more insidious occurrence has taken place.

Journalists get a bad rap in society these days.  Often times, the term “journalism” is often associated with corruption, pushing agendas, hiding sources, or withholding facts.  Personally, I take offense to such a notion, as a journalist typically contains the same moral fiber as anyone.  Sure, there are journalists who are liars, thieves, and scumbags.  Even Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post heroes broke the Watergate story which led to Nixon’s demise only were able to break the story because they wanted to set an agenda, (that is, the impeachment of Nixon) and were accused of harboring a liberal bias.  Jayson Blair of the New York Times, literally, flat-out lied on numerous occasions.  Other examples of corruption exist, but overall, journalists are no more distrustful than people of any calling.  If the kid at McDonald’s steals a $20 bill out of a cash register, people don’t automatically assume all McDonald’s employees are thieves.  They rationalize the situation, realize there was a bad apple and don’t stereotype the rest of the McDonald’s workforce, so why should journalism be the same?

Anyway, getting back on track.  Williams, a 22-year news veteran, is well aware of the implications of his actions.  In fact, he basically spit on every journalistic principle or shred of ethical thinking he ever learned.  More than anything, a journalist is responsible for acting as a bridge between the happenings of the world and the eyes of the viewer.  Namely, society much trust a journalist to deliver information they don’t necessarily have access to, such as a frontline view of the Iraq War.  Obviously, Williams’ telling was interesting, heroic, action-packed, and gives Chris Kyle a real run for his money as far as American heroes are concerned.  However, Williams’ Hollywood tale of gritty heroism lacks any sort of, well, real-ness.  Of course his story seemed more awesome to the viewer, because “I was in a helicopter that was shot down” sounds infinitely cooler than “I watched a helicopter get shot down from the safety of Mother Earth.”

Sadly, Williams, a respected, world-renowned media presence has effectively turned his storied and illustrious career into a joke.  The optimist in me tells me that Williams, other than these couple of instances of baffling buffoonery, has acted with the highest level of journalistic integrity for the duration of his career.  Let’s switch gears for a minute.  In Super Bowl XIII with the Cowboys trailing the Steelers 21-14 late in the third quarter, Roger Staubach found a wide-open Jackie Smith in the back of the end zone for the game tying score.  However, the usually sure-handed Smith dropped the easy touchdown, and the Cowboys would go on the lose the game by four points.  In fact, I would be willing to bet anyone reading this only knows Jackie Smith as “the guy who embarrassingly dropped that ridiculously easy touchdown catch.”  Jackie Smith was also a five time All-Pro and is currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  And that one, single play has defined the entirety of his professional identity.  And this was an NFL tight end, not the face of a multinational news conglomerate.  Williams has only been suspended for six months, and while some might say “just call it a day and ride into the sunset, dude”, Williams is cashing a nearly $10 million a year paycheck from NBC.  He would be insane to walk away from that kind of capital.  So, Williams will be back, but what then?  How is anyone watching the Nightly News going to take him seriously knowing six months ago he lied about seeing a dead body during Hurricane Katrina.

I’m willing to give Williams the benefit of the doubt because while I do believe he intentionally, knowingly falsified storied, he’s also been a reasonably reliable, nationally recognized and lauded figure amongst the news media, and he’s certainly easier to like than anyone on The View.  But, with that said, he severely jeopardized his career, his legacy, and worst of all, his own integrity.

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