NBC anchor Brian Williams may have survived lying about his war record in Iraq, if it was simply an offhand remark to David Letterman. News anchors are habitual blow-hards who often inflate their stories to help create their own self-myth. Telling a little white lie on a talk show is almost expected, part of the job of promoting the nightly news.
If it was nothing more than a talk show gaffe, Williams could have shrugged off the revelation that he really wasn’t flying in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War. He might have tossed it aside as simply a late night slip, one of those things that comes out at the wrong moment. A quick apology, a few mea culpas, some hearty laughs about bad memory, and Williams would be back on the air.
But as soon as he incorporated his little white lie into a news story, he was toast. Reporting the incident on air as actual news separated Williams’ hubris from the realm of stupid party boasts. He crossed the most sacred of journalism lines and now he must face the consequences.
There is no way Williams “misremembered” the helicopter story. You don’t forget that you were actually in the helicopter that was not hit by a rocket, instead of the one that was actually hit. We’re not talking about an event from ancient days; it was 11 years ago. Some newsmen can remember what they had for breakfast 11 years ago. There is no quick explanation for why Williams thought he was in the helicopter forced down in the desert, unless he is delusional in a very dark manner. If Williams was willing to fudge the truth on the Iraq story, then it is completely reasonable to question what else he fudged over the years.
Yet, before we burn him at the stake of the righteous, let’s keep in mind he was a news anchor and news anchors are typically creations of illusion and truth stretching. They are presented as serious news personnel, toughened reporters who can be trusted with your news. But most anchors are nothing more than news readers, capable of looking good on camera and enunciating with flair. They provide a hint of a frown at the right time; maybe the rise of an eyebrow. Their journalism is relegated to punching up their scripts and standing where the producer tells them to stand.
The networks spend millions creating images for these anchors, which may have little connection to reality. Anchors don’t need to be reputable reporters, but they do need to be able to act like one. “The remarkable thing is not that [Williams’] war exaggerations have been found out, but that he’s managed so confidently to pull off the network anchor role for so long,” Michael Wolff wrote in the Hollywood Reporter.
“He is America’s most prominent newsman but never has reported the news. He is the managing editor of a news organization, once among the largest in the country, that has been stripped down to the barest bones. He has assumed the mantle of network anchorman, as though it is a job that still commands the greatest stature and gravitas, but which, everyone understands, is mere relic now. He gamely continues the conceit that the network news broadcast is one of the primary sources of news for most Americans — at best a nostalgic, if not comical, notion.”
Williams’ main role was as “an in-house, all-purpose corporate face and moderator,” for the corporate owner of the network, Wolff notes.
As a corporate spokesman, Williams could have overcome the fallout from his lie about his war experiences. Anchors are all built on little white lies. But there is no way NBC can present him as its icon of credibility and trust after he so clearly lied in a news story. No amount of makeup or snappy commercial spots will clean up that image.
Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.