Brian Williams Crashes And Burns

[ Posted Thursday, February 5th, 2015 – 18:15 UTC ]

To be more literal than metaphorical, that headline should really read something like "...Doesn't Crash And Burn" or maybe "...Misremembers Crashing And Burning." One can only imagine what the late-night comedy jokes are going to be like, starting tonight. On Twitter, Williams is already being lampooned to hilarious effect (best one I've seen so far: "That one live shot I did from the moon"). The big question is whether he'll be able to keep his job now or not, seeing as how he has damaged his own credibility -- possibly beyond repair -- with his embellishment of his Iraq War story of being in a helicopter shot down by enemy fire.

What Brian Williams revealed last night on NBC's Nightly News was that this event, in fact, did not happen. Or, at the very least, did not happen the way he'd been telling the story. The military newspaper Stars And Stripes broke this story after interviewing the actual people who were on the helicopter in question, which did not actually contain Brian Williams during the event. Williams (or "BriWi," as he is affectionately known around here) arrived 30-60 minutes later (accounts vary) and interviewed the people who were on the chopper -- and then at some later date convinced himself, within his own mind, that he was actually on board when the attack happened.

How big this scandal gets will likely determine whether BriWi's career will survive, which currently hangs in the balance. High-profile television news anchors are required to have one intangible quality above all else; that of trustworthiness. There's a very simple reason for this: if we can't believe him on this story, which others that he tells (or will tell) are fabricated? But before I draw any conclusions, I'd like to say a few things about television journalism in general, and then BriWi in particular.

First and foremost, I have nothing against Brian Williams personally. His professional persona is another thing, but I'll get to that in a moment. Purely as a human being, Williams seems like a decent sort of guy. I'm sure he'd be a great guy to have a few beers with, to put this another way. He is not above poking fun at himself, and in fact he would have made an excellent late-night comedian, if his appearances on Saturday Night Live are any indication. When he wants to be, he's downright funny -- he can take on a role, fake an accent, deliver his lines well, and most importantly he has a superb sense of comedic timing -- even when he's spoofing his own inflated sense of self-importance. Aside from comedy hosting, he seems very likeable and interesting as a person. I say all of this just so you don't think I harbor any personal hatred or bad feelings towards the man.

Professionally, I have plenty of complaints about BriWi, but a large percentage of them are complaints about television journalism in general, and so I can't really lay them all at BriWi's feet. Williams's on-air personality is supposed to be a guy with a Midwestern/handsome look and a generic American accent (both of which play well on television) who can relate to everyone in every story he covers. He scrupulously maintains an "Aw, shucks" style of delivery which is supposed to personalize the news and comfort the viewers into thinking BriWi's just like them, really. In this, BriWi is not a whole lot different than pretty much every other major television news anchor. He may, in fact, be better at it than most (his ratings have been consistently high), but his on-air character is not much different than the anchors on most other broadcast networks (note: not cable -- cable news is a world of its own, with different rules and different anchor types ordered from central casting).

The biggest gripe I have with BriWi (and all the others) is their forced "I'm just like you, folks" attitude, especially when it comes to any stories dealing with inequality, wealth, taxes on the rich, and the "one percent." Basic journalistic ethics demand that stories such as these are accompanied by a "full disclosure," since every single one of the network anchors is indeed a member of that one percent at the very top. But I have never in my life seen a single mention of this by any of them. "Congress is talking about raising taxes on millionaires, of which I am one" just never seems to get said. Exorbitantly-paid "journalists" on television news should 'fess up to their own economic status when reporting about the politics of the debate. Call it envy, perhaps -- I certainly wouldn't turn down a paycheck that size myself, should anyone ever offer one to me. But it's always jarring for me to hear news anchors try to sympathize with the problems of the "common man" when I know that most of them have absolutely no clue what they are talking about in today's world. They live in a world of first-class housing, doormen, limousines, private jets, and expensive restaurants. I don't begrudge them this lifestyle, I just want them to be a bit more honest about it in their reporting, instead of the fake empathy they display whenever class difference in America is part of a story. But that is all a general complaint. BriWi's not the only one who is guilty of this, so as I said I can't lay the blame at his feet alone.

The main reason I do find it incredibly painful to watch Brian Williams on NBC is how he routinely breaks basic "Journalism 101" rules, pretty much every night (and even pretty much on every story). There are stylistic rules to the journalism game. One is not to repeat things over and over within the same segment or even the same sentence, in a cheap effort to overdramaticize the story. Williams is more guilty of this than anyone else I can think of on broadcast news. If you took the superlatives and hype out of one of his introductory segments, you wouldn't be left with much, to put this another way. His rhetorical style of using "so many" or "so much" or "so serious" tied together with his inane repetition of key words and his choppy phrases inserted in some sort of obsession with time and place ("...on this very night, in this very city, where so many Americans live, right here in New York, tonight..."). No news story is minor enough to escape. BriWi leaves no tear unjerked and no heartstring unplucked, using the sort of overblown apocalyptic language usually reserved for "scenes from tomorrow's episode" on a soap opera. And that's just when he's talking about the weather.

In politics, many on the left see BriWi (and all network news anchors) as nothing short of corporatist shills -- continually highlighting the stories that Wall Street cares about, and giving short shrift to the stories affecting Main Street. On the right, BriWi is associated (unfairly) with MSNBC, and seen as just another liberal media talking head. Personally, when it comes to political slanting, I see BriWi as living in perpetual fear of being dismissed as a liberal, and thus (like many, many others in the industry) he worships at the altar-of-convenience of the god of False Equivalency. Republicans do a stupid thing, but hey, Democrats have also done stupid things. Democrat gets caught in a scandal, but then again there have also been Republican scandals. Once again, though, I'm slipping back into a general complaint and away from the specific.

Much of my disdain for BriWi dates back to the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I must honestly admit. NBC aired an hour-long Brian Williams broadcast which was quite possibly the worst thing I've ever seen under the heading of "television news" in my lifetime. Yes, it was that bad. It was nothing short of emotional manipulation, the center of which was BriWi himself. The whole hour was about him, his personal feelings, and his own experiences during the storm -- which amounted to attempting his usual fake empathy, while keeping as well-protected from those he was empathizing about as possible. Don't believe me? Here is a transcript of Williams narrating the absolute worst segment of the show:

It was not good. We started to feel that if we had food, we shouldn't eat it publicly. If we had water, we shouldn't drink it in front of anyone else. Everywhere we went, every satellite shot, every camera shot, we were at the height of the violence and the looting and then -- all of the reports of gun play downtown. Well, who bathed in the only lights in town? It was us.

We had to ask federal protection service guys with automatic weapons to just form a ring and watch our backs while we were doing Dateline NBC one night. We made a decision the French Quarter was no longer safe. Things were getting too dicey and we pulled out to the suburb of Metairie, Louisiana.

I'll be candid. We heard CNN pulled out, that had some influence on our decision. We had no weapons. We don't work that way. That has to separate us as journalist [sic]. But it wasn't safe. Cars were king. If you had transportation out of town to high ground, you might eat. You might get some water. So here we are driving through town in our rental cars. State troopers had to cover us by aiming at the men in the street just to tell them, "Don't think of doing a smash-and-grab and killing this guy for the car." I carried a case of Vienna sausage -- cans of Vienna sausage as collateral in case we had a smash-and-grab carjacking. I was going to offer it to someone in exchange for my life.

So there you have it. The message to take away from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was that the measure of Brian Williams's life is precisely one case of cocktail weenies. I truly wish I were making this up, but sadly I am not. The entire hour was nothing more than self-aggrandizement and BriWi's own inflated sense of self-being. In an interview to promote this news program, BriWi laid down a marker for himself and all his fellow journalists:

If we come out of this crisis and in the next couple of years don't have a national conversation on the following issues: race, class, petroleum, the environment, then we in the news media will have failed by not keeping people's feet to the fire.

To put it mildly, he did fail to achieve this goal.

Which brings us back to BriWi's future. Will he remain as anchor of Nightly News, or is his inflated story going to derail the remainder of his career? Time will tell. Now, to be completely fair, what Williams did was a very human thing. Memories are tricky critters. They can warp and become edited over time, even within the confines of your own brain. An example of this might be a family story that gets told at every family gathering which, over the decades, morphs from something you've always heard others to describe to being so vivid a personal story that you start to remember yourself being present. I don't doubt BriWi's assertion that something similar happened to his helicopter story, because it is eminently plausible. His own recollection of the story seems to have moved from "I interviewed the crew after it happened, when my own chopper landed," to "we saw this happen to the chopper flying in front of us," to "it happened to the helicopter I was personally on." Dramatic stories are always more dramatic the closer the teller is to the action, and memories are fluid -- as I said, it's basic human nature.

Others have been caught in similar misrecollections about wartime experiences. In the political world, there are two notable examples that immediately spring to mind. The most recent would be Hillary Clinton saying she remembered ducking for cover from sniper fire at an airport, when videos exist of her participating in a welcoming ceremony with children instead. This revelation caused Clinton some political damage, but it obviously wasn't fatal to her political career. The other politician who weathered a similar storm over a fake war story was President Ronald Reagan, who told a story (more than once) of personally filming the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and then holding onto a reel of this footage in case the Holocaust was ever questioned in the future. Reagan actually spent the entirety of World War II in California, in what was known as the "First Motion Picture Unit," essentially handling the production of training films. He may indeed have come across and kept a film reel of death camp liberations, but he certainly wasn't anywhere near them when they were filmed. Reagan was elected to the presidency twice. Hillary Clinton may be elected in the very near future. Neither one saw their political career destroyed as a result of their embellishments.

These examples, however, come from the political world, not journalism. To put it mildly, the bar for honesty is a lot higher in journalism than it is in politics. Or, at least, it is supposed to be. Now, mistakes are made all the time, many of them by me. I am far from perfect in this regard. Just two weeks ago I started with my own vague memory of the midterm election results and then used what I thought would be a funny "hook" to write the article, about Republicans in the Senate bumping up against the fact that they didn't have 60 members. The only problem? I was flat-out wrong. I didn't check my facts. I had remembered the previous Senate's 55/45 partisan split and just flipped it from Democratic to Republican. It worked well enough in the article, but the hard truth is that there are only 54 Republicans in the chamber now (they only won 9 new seats, not 10). The entire thing wouldn't have worked if I had checked this fact (because Sammy Hagar never sang "I can't drive 54!"... maybe I could have written a "Studio 54" piece instead...), and it has taken me until now to publicly admit the error. I can't just go back and edit the article, because it's pointless without that Sammy Hagar hook. So I'll add a retraction and leave it up as a monument to the stupidity of not doing basic fact-checking every single time, even when you think you already know the answer.

This is why I am not piling on the "Fire BriWi!" wagon. Nobody's perfect. I have no idea whether Brian Williams will continue to be the lead NBC anchor for Nightly News. His firing wouldn't surprise me over the issue, but then neither would him weathering the storm of criticism and continuing in his job. I am not one calling for his head, though, I am content to observe from the sidelines (this is in contrast to my repeated calls in the past for David Gregory to step down as host of Meet The Press -- for reasons of basic competence).

But I do, as a final word, have to personally say that I'd be a lot more inclined to watch NBC's Nightly News program if they showed BriWi the door and gave their weekend anchor a promotion. Because it'd be a much better show, journalistically, if it were anchored every weeknight by Lester Holt.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “Brian Williams Crashes And Burns”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    I don't really consider him a journalist. He's a news reader. He's trustworthy enough for that job.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    John From Censornati -

    Now that's exactly what we need: a differentiation from "news reader" and "journalist." There is indeed a difference, at least in most cases.



  3. [3] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Embellishing and misremembering are indeed all too human. Even worse people tend to trust their own recollections and fact-check recollections less. I actually only expect factual reliability when events other than personal experiences are reported. With declining confidence in personal recollections and increasing confidence in news reportage as time passes.

    I define news as stories that are sourced and fact-checked. Those I expect to be factually accurate. I see no real reason a journalist's personal recollections should be held to a higher standard than anyone else's, even when reported as news.

    Not a particular BriWi fan but a faulty recollection isn't slanted, manipulated, or even sloppy reportage. Just human nature. Knowing its a personal recollection should be all the disclaimer anyone needs. The details of the event may be inaccurate but the recollection is being accurately reported. Eyewitness testimony is always unreliable.

    I doubt many will see it that way. I only wish more would! People tend to invest far too much faith in what they are told without considering just how likely it is that reporters actually know the facts, however trusted they may be.

    It isn't just that recollections probably haven't been fact-checked, its that breaking news may be incomplete or inaccurate, and any news may be edited to reduce or increase controversy, or to be more, or less, partisan. Getting "just the facts" is never likely. Which is why multiple sources for any story is always preferable. And any single-sourced story should always be suspect.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    There are two things to remember here..

    1- Everyone tells war stories...

    2- ALL war stories are bullshit..

    My personal take on the whole Williams issue??

    "Let it go... Let it go...."


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    On Twitter, Williams is already being lampooned to hilarious effect (best one I've seen so far: "That one live shot I did from the moon").



  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [4] -

    That's mighty big of you. I really thought you'd have some anti-BriWi screed, here.

    I think conservatives misread NBC News. It's not MSNBC. I find it more slanted towards the conservative point of view than CBS, for example. Dunno about ABC, they seem steeped in sensationalism, which is kind of a different thing.

    But BriWi and NBC seem to be closer to the conservative viewpoint in both the slant of the stories themselves (always willing to bend over backwards not to call conservatives on untruthful statements) and in the prominence they give stories like "jobs report best in over a decade" (just from Friday's report).

    Like I said, I enjoy BriWi's comedy, on SNL and late-night (he did some hilarious "as himself" appearences on Conan O'Brien skits, for instance). I would truly enjoy having a beer with the guy.

    But I have little respect for him as a "journalist." And that goes way beyond political slant (as I've often said, the Fox Sunday morning guy is the best interviewer of conservative politicians, because he is freed from the "liberal media" label, so he asks MUCH tougher questions).

    So I was interested to see that BriWi voluntarily turned the NN over to Lester Holt. Next week will be interesting, that's for sure.


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    That's mighty big of you. I really thought you'd have some anti-BriWi screed, here.

    Naw, like I said. Everyone tells war stories.. And all war stories are bullshit. Even the true ones.

    ESPECIALLY the true ones.. :D


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