Brian Williams’ Stolen Valor
Audiences and readers are down, followed out the door by advertisers, trailed by revenues, which in turn kills jobs. That is the tale of newspapers, magazines, and television network news, but the one thing legacy media has that they lord over the new age of information purveyors is credibility and trust. You can hemorrhage all those other items, but when you bleed out credibility and trust, all that remains is an empty body.
The death watch, it seems, is on for NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who recanted a 12-year-old, oft-told story about riding in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by enemy fire. Williams made a brief on-air apology Wednesday and also on his Facebook page but said nothing on-air Thursday night. Neither he nor his bosses at 30 Rockefeller Center are saying much else.
But that isn’t stopping everyone else’s tongues from wagging and speculation from building over the future of both the one-time war correspondent and the network that gave viewers decades of trusted news delivery with Huntley and Brinkley and Tom Brokaw. Brokaw, according to the New York Post’s gossipy Page Six column, wants Williams gone.
Before he took over the news desk, Williams was NBC’s glamour correspondent, showing up in all the world’s hot spots, the face of the network on the ground. In March 2003, he was in Iraq for the invasion and was in one of four Chinook helicopters that came under fire in the early days of the war. One of the helicopters was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and, in the retelling of the story on Dateline, Williams gave the impression he was on board that chopper.
Last week, Williams brought one of the pilots to a hockey game in New York and showed the event to his viewers on a broadcast last Friday.
“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG,” Williams told viewers. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded, and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the US Army 3rd Infantry.”
Other servicemen who were there that day apparently couldn’t take it anymore and called Williams out on his tale on social media. Stars and Stripes also ran a lengthy expose and the story – the real one, that is – took off from there. The truth was another helicopter was hit while the one Williams was riding in arrived about an hour later.
While Williams and NBC may be maintaining radio silence, other media are pouncing on the episode. Other media are already combing through past Williams reports, such as his coverage of Hurricane Katrina when he said he saw bodies floating by in the French Quarter.
Some reports are raising incidents involving other public figures such as Hillary Clinton, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Ronald Reagan who have had to come clean after offering stories that ran counter to truth and reality. Some survived, some paid the price.
But there is a different standard for those in the media because it is their job to report in an honest and – here’s that word again – credible manner. If there are questions about the person behind the story, what force will the story have?
In addition to Williams’ position as the face of NBC News, he is also the program’s managing editor. It may be an honorary title but in the business, an M.E. is the second-in-command, often having more say over the day-to-day operations of a newsroom than the editor in chief. You think losing the confidence of an audience is bad, try losing your newsroom.
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