As a former network correspondent who was sent to many horrible places in the world, my biggest concern is that the public will believe that all TV journalists who report from combat zones and dangerous locations are just like Brian Williams.
In fact, the overwhelming majority never lie about or embellish what they did or saw. How could they? They don’t work alone or in a vacuum. They move as a team: reporter, camera crew, producer, gofers. Every team member sees the same thing.
Williams’ big lie involves his first visit to Iraq in 2003. He was in a U.S. Army helicopter in northern Iraq. A chopper an hour ahead of his was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). When that aircraft was located, Williams interviewed the crew and filed a report for NBC News.
He clearly stated he was not on the helicopter that was attacked (his report is on YouTube as are those in which he falsely inflates his role). But later, years later, in fact, he started telling the story with self-aggrandizing embellishments on TV talk shows, lectures at universities, in interviews with magazines and newspapers that made it seem that he was on that chopper and in mortal danger. A “wannabe” tough-guy combat-news correspondent charade.
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When he repeated the lie yet again in a Jan. 30 Nightly News report, soldiers who were there that day in Iraq objected, which forced Williams to apologize on air a few days later, calling it a “conflation of memories.” That ignited a firestorm of indignation against him from the media and the public.
Williams’ “wannabe lie” is damaging enough to TV news’ already soiled credibility. But an equally important issue is: Why didn’t NBC personnel who were with him in Iraq (network anchors travel with and are surrounded by an entourage that would make President Obama jealous) blow the whistle and stop him when he started fantasizing about his phony bravery? And why, after reportedly learning of his falsehoods, didn’t NBC News executives put an end to it? If true, they are as guilty, maybe more so, than Brian Williams.
What we are seeing here is the network-news star system in action. Network-news anchors are virtually untouchable and can pretty much do and say whatever they wish. Supremely powerful, they are the face of the network. Probably earn more than the news divisions’ presidents (Williams earns $10 million annually). On their shoulders rides the news divisions’ — and maybe the networks’ — success or failure.
When he started his self-serving embellishment campaign, Williams’ Iraq colleagues (who, I assure you, did most of the work to get his story assembled and on the air) knew the truth, but probably shrugged and opined, “Sure, Brian is embellishing the story. But what the hell? He’s the star anchor. I don’t want to get involved. Let New York handle it.”
Perhaps most telling is that since Williams was revealed to be a liar (or at least a “serial embellisher”), not one NBC colleague has spoken up publicly to support him (except NBC News president Deborah Turness, who is in charge of spinning the story).
A cynical friend scoffed at my concern, calling it “much ado about nothing,” adding, “We all know TV news lies.” Oh yeah? Well, I don’t know that. It is not supposed to be that way at all. When viewers lose confidence in the medium, the game is over.
Lies and embellishments on TV news may continue to be told by the likes of Brian Williams, but one thing is clear to me: The “network star system” is broken and needs to be fixed.
Ike Seamans is a former NBC News correspondent and former Miami Herald Other Views columnist.