What Brian Williams Can Teach Us
By far the biggest story my entire week in America has been the "embellishments" of NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams. That might come as something of a surprise to many Mishpacha readers who have never heard of Brian Williams. But he is paid a $10,000,000 annual salary to basically read the nightly news. It is a job that he apparently does well, aided by a pleasant baritone voice, the look of a 1950s department store mannequin (to quote Mark Steyn), and a certain self-effacing charm.
Mr. Williams' troubles began with a generous gesture -- an on-air tribute to a returning Iraq veteran whom Williams said had guarded his helicopter in the early days of the second Iraq War in 2003, after it had been hit by RPG fire. But Stars and Stripes magazine, which serves the U.S. military, immediately called that story into question, after numerous former servicemen contacted the magazine to challenge Williams' account. He subsequently admitted that his Chinook helicopter had been flying behind another helicopter that was hit by RPG fire, and he had "conflated" the two.
As it turned out, however, Williams' craft was flying between half an hour to an hour behind and not in a convoy with the downed aircraft. Even after checking their dictionaries to find out what "conflate' means, most Americans had a hard time figuring out how one can conflate being hit by RPG fire with not being hit by an RPG – presumably the experience it quite different.
Interestingly, in his early memories of event, Williams made no mention of his helicopter being hit. The danger to which he was exposed just grew and grew over the years. Something similar happened in his statements about what he witnessed from an Israeli helicopter during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In his first statement, Williams reported witnessing Hizbullah rockets being fired at Israel. Next those rockets passed 1500 meters below his helicopter. And finally, in a third iteration, they passed "just beneath the helicopter I was riding in."
In an effort at damage control, NBC News announced it was launching an internal investigation. That investigation soon spread to Williams reporting from New Orleans during Hurricane Katerina, during which he first gained widespread attention. Again, Williams' memories of those days appear to have exaggerated the danger to which he was exposed – marauding gangs in the five-star hotel in which he was housed, the severe dysentery from which he allegedly suffered after accidentally imbibing some sewage water. Ha also added picturesque details to his reportage – seeing a dead body float by from his hotel room in New Orleans Latin Quarter (which did not fully flooded) to watching a man commit suicide by leaping from the upper deck of the Superdome.
THERE WAS A TIME when most Americans viewed the nightly news on one of the three major TV channels, and the anchors on those shows were national icons. In 1968, CBS's Walter Cronkite – "the most trusted man in America" – traveled to Vietnam to view the Tet offensive first hand and concluded, "We are mired in a stalemate," with no chance of victory. Though the story is likely apocryphal, then President Lyndon Johnson is said to have remarked to his press secretary, as he watched Cronkite's broadcast, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
Nightly news broadcasts no longer carry anywhere near the clout of those years, primarily due to proliferation of alternate news sources, as well as the lack of interest of a large swath of the population in news or information of any kind, unless it deals with figures of pop culture or sports stars.
That lack of a modern day Walter Cronkite's is not entirely a bad thing. Cronkite's judgment on the Tet offensive was as wrong as it was influential. Communist forces were decimated. Nearly fifty thousands Communist fighters, out of an initial attacking force of 70,000, were killed in a matter of months, compared to American casualties in the low hundreds. For a year thereafter, the Communist forces lacked any offensive capability. But Cronkite had already cast his verdict.
If Brian Williams is no Walter Cronkite, he is still watched by 8 to 10 million viewers nightly, and the spectacle of his humiliation dominated the news for a week. At first, it appeared that he would ride out the storm after an apology and perhaps a decent period of absence for self-reflection. But Williams has now been suspended without pay for six months and given no promise of being reinstated in his old job.
I doubt he will ever again be NBC's prime time news anchor. He has become a figure of ridicule with professional and amateur caricaturists alike coming up with an endless series of cartoons placing him at the center of historical events from Thermopylae to Appomattox. The one indispensable requirement for a news reader is a certain gravitas, and that is a little hard to maintain if viewers at home are giggling away over some cartoon they've seen.
And trust once lost is not easily regained. Prior to the recent revelations, Brian Williams was, according to one survey, the 23rd most trusted man in America.
WHAT ARE THE TAKEAWAYS from the Williams affair? One person who cannot be happy about made up combat stories is the presumed 2016 Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton. Virtually every story about Williams mentioned Hillary's own oft-repeated memories of having landed in Bosnia under sniper-fire. Unfortunately for her, the actual news footage from the event showed Clinton being greeted by a delegation of dignitaries, including a little girl bearing flowers. The association to Williams is not one that Clinton will be happy to emphasize, even if a number of opinion writers did suggest that the standard is lower for politicians – all of whom are presumed to be lying unless proven otherwise.
Nor will Clinton's likeliest rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Elizabeth Warren be helped. She, after all, advanced her academic career by claiming to be part Cherokee Indian, based on nothing more than family lore and high cheekbones.
The first reaction of the rest of us will likely be the schadenfreude that so often accompanies the swift fall of the mighty. And that reaction may be especially strong among friends of Israel, when the downfallen is a member of the media. No country suffers more from blatant distortions and lies of the media than Israel. Though the problem is far more exacerbated in Europe than in the United States, it is not absent in the latter. Anything that deprives MSM news reporting of its aura of authority is likely good for Israel. NBC News, it now appears, was well aware of Williams' propensity for self-aggrandizement, albeit with aw-shucks charm: the subject was the scuttlebutt of office gossip. But because of his stature, he was never called to task.
But shadenfreude alone is too easy. If we are enjoined not to rejoice at the fall of our enemies, how much more so those whom we don't even know. Watching the mighty brought low in a flash by their own actions should inspire a certain terror, just as in Greek tragedy where the hero is brought down by his own tragic flaw.
Many bad things happen to people over which they have no control. But no less frequently do the worse things that happen to us and others result from self-inflicted wounds because we refuse to acknowledge our faults or to work to improve ourselves.
That which brought Brian Williams low is hardly a fault from which the rest of us are immune. Gifted raconteurs are often prone to embellish a detail here or there. Who, for instance, has not at least felt the temptation to incorporate some witty repartee into the recounting of a story, even though one's clever response was only thought of long after the event in question. Mark Steyn quotes comedian Mel Brooks reminiscing about his life on stage. After one uproarious anecdote, Brooks said, "I swear every word is true. Well, no. The mildly funny stuff is true. The mezzo-mezzo stuff is mostly true. But the really funny stuff is entirely invented."
Of course, the temptation to build ourselves up is the most common road to becoming a full-blown fantasist. Isn't it, after all, at some level more true and more concise to say one was a state champion debater than to have to explain that one would have been the state champion debater had the judge in the finals not been an idiot or motivated by a long-standing animus for your high school? Haven't most of us at some point or another opted for the "deeper truth" or concision.
Williams' lie was, at one level, trivial. He had almost nothing to gain from it besides a momentary nod of admiration from some late-night TV host. And the cost will be huge, for he will spend the rest of his life wondering if people are laughing at him or making jokes behind his back.
But lies, trivial or not, are wrong. They diminish emes in the world, and by doing so lower the trust that is the fundamental glue holding every personal relationship together, as well as society as a whole.
We all have to work on internalizing that. But if we haven't quite reached that madrega, let us at least acknowledge that lying is also stupid and often entails a cost far in excess of any momentary gain. And for providing such a clear example, we owe Brian Williams a debt of gratitude.