For a journalist credibility is everything. Without it what you write, what you say, what you report lacks the critical ring of truth.
Credibility, or more accurately, the loss of it, is what has happened to NBC News anchor Brian Williams in the wake of his false claim that in 2003 while in Iraq he had been in a helicopter hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade).
In fact, as Williams himself now admits, that story is simply not true.
He was never in a helicopter that was forced to make an emergency landing because it was hit by an RPG. In fact, he arrived about an hour after the choppers that had been hit by RPG’s had already made their emergency landings.
Williams apologized for the fabrication recently during NBC’s Nightly News broadcast:
“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. I want to apologize.” He added that: “I have no desire to fictionalize my experience and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened. I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
|NBC News Anchor Brian Williams|
Here’s the problem with that statement. Anybody who has ever been in war as a combatant or covered war as a correspondent, as I have, NEVER forgets a near death experience–and that’s what being hit by an RPG in a helicopter then crash landing would definitely be.
I recall once lying flat in the bottom of a putrid ditch during a mortar attack on a village in Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province and thinking for sure that the next shell was going to land on top of me.
“Don’t worry,” someone who was hunkered in the ditch with me said, “you never hear the one that gets you.”
That was little consolation at the time, but the experience is still etched deeply in my memory bank.
That’s why the “fog of memory” is simply not a valid excuse. Williams insists he conflated his inspection of the impact area of those damaged choppers with “thinking” or “remembering” that he was aboard one of the targeted helicopters.
Perhaps it was wishful thinking. After all, if you as an NBC correspondent, can say you were almost killed covering war, in the sometimes flaky and dodgy world of television journalism that goes a long way toward increasing your on-air persona–not to mention an increase in salary.
Now it appears Williams fabricated another story while covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005. Williams claims to have seen a dead body float past the window of the five-star hotel where he was staying in the French Quarter.
“When you look out of your hotel room window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face-down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” he said in a 2006 interview. “I beat that storm. I was there before it arrived. I rode it out with people who later died in the Superdome.”
The fact is there were no corpses floating through the French Quarter because it is on higher ground and was, therefore, spared the rising floodwaters that devastated other neighborhoods when the levees broke.
An unlike the evacuees in the Superdome in the days following the storm, Williams was ensconced in an NBC News RV compound on Canal Street with food and drinks along with a bevy of producers and military-trained security. He did not endure the mayhem that evacuees went through overnight and days afterward.
The sad truth is that television news is seen today more as entertainment and less as journalism–and its starsnot only must be protected, but relentlessly well-groomed.
Television journalists are often viewed the same way Hollywood actors are viewed–superstars who earn substantial salaries. And regrettably, like their Hollywood brethren, they sometimes have difficulty discerning fact from fiction. As such, they sometimes write or present the news to fit their perception of reality, rather than cover it impartially.
Like Williams they often have an inflated view of their own importance.
I am reminded of what English playwright Tom Stoppard had to say about journalists like Williams:
“He’s someone who flies around from hotel to hotel and thinks that the most interesting thing about any story is the fact that he has arrived to cover it.”