NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has come under fire (no pun intended) this past week for incorrectly claiming that he rode on a helicopter that came under enemy fire when he was reporting as a news correspondent in 2003.
Williams apologized on NBC Nightly News for getting it wrong, stating that he was actually in another helicopter trailing about thirty minutes behind the helicopter that was shot down.
The perplexing admission came after a story in the Stars & Stripes newspaper pointing out the discrepancy.
“This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served, while I did not.” Williams said on the air. “I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now my apology.”
What bothers me most about this story is that others in his crew (cameraman, probably a producer, etc.) had to go along with the lie as well, if not possibly inflate it. This lie was well known and dramatized by the NBC offices to validate how dangerous it was for Williams to be in that area during that time. Now that his fib has been exposed, Williams is being thrown under the bus for it.
I’m not in any way condoning his lie. I’m arguing that he is not the only one who is part of the story and is the scapegoat for their sham. By going along with it and being the public face, he is getting the brunt of the damage.
The bigger issue we are facing as a society is the credibility of the media. We as a society have to hold the fourth estate to a higher standard than we have been, or we have no hope of regaining our freedoms. We see politicians, athletes, celebrities and other famous figures lie to the public. However, we expect the media and journalists to hold these people accountable. If journalists are liars or are stretching the truth, whom are the public supposed to trust as a credible news source?
The journalists baying for Williams’ ousting are part of the problem, several of whom are the same people allowing the systemic issues of credibility in our news coverage.
As the web continues to rise as a platform for news consumption, we have an accelerated and immediate cycle of both false stories and rumors and the ability to examine and break them down within one system.
A journalist from Columbia University, Craig Silverman, released a report called Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content. Silverman collected and analyzed over 1,600 “false rumors” and examined how large news organizations proliferate this false information but are less engaged in stopping and correcting its viral spread.
Silverman wrote in his report: “There is a source of tension between chasing clicks and establishing credibility is the abundance of unverified, half-true, un-sourced or otherwise unclear information. It’s a result of the holy trinity of widespread internet access, the explosion of social networks, and the massive market penetration of smartphone.”
What we know from the Williams controversy, and many others, is that this tension is nothing new. It has formed part of the conflation of information and entertainment that has grown the business but severely diminished the reputation of journalism over time. Media organizations basing their digital growth on news are balancing requirements for traffic growth and that of their brand.
What we saw here was a care-less slip-up by the deliberat ely deceitful; others know that the gloss on the story is shiny, but don’t do much to buff it down.
As for Williams’ future, after his six-month suspension without pay, I imagine he will transition into more of an entertainer figure. Williams is now a business liability to NBC and that is why he won’t be back on Nightly News. Williams has frequently been on The Daily Show and The Tonight Show, and has also had cameos on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. It’s easy to conceive him making the irretrievable transition.