In hindsight, the tip-off that Brian Williams was making up that story about getting shot at over Iraq in 2003 was that he seemed to think it was something to brag about in the first place.
War reporting, like war itself, involves a high sitting-around-to-action ratio. Once they’ve accepted the extra risk of going to a conflict zone, journalists generally wind up under fire for one of two reasons: sheer bad luck or their own miscalculations — all too often, embarrassingly stupid miscalculations.
The first alternative is no reflection on you as a reporter, one way or the other. The second one reflects poorly on you.
I learned this from a few close scrapes when I was a notoriously, but insufficiently, risk-averse correspondent in places like El Salvador and the former Yugoslavia.
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Example: that time in Sarajevo when I strutted into an interview with two well-armed Bosnian militiamen, showing off my state-of-the-art bulletproof vest as a conversation starter.
Impressed with the merchandise, they pointed their weapons at me and demanded that I hand it over to them; after all, they were the ones intentionally going into combat later on. Begging them not to kill me, I complied.
In short, never trust an “I got shot at” tale that doesn’t dwell on how really, really scared the tale-teller felt at the time. Even if the incident in question is due to bad luck (as seems to have been the case for Williams), as opposed to bad decision-making, getting shot at, or the equivalent, can be so scary it’s humiliating.
Your guts turn to water, your heart pounds and you start shaking, or screaming, and, if possible, running like hell. Then comes the sound of laughter: battle-savvy locals, pointing and cackling at jittery you.
And if you did wind up in danger as a result of a bad decision, the stress is compounded many times over by the knowledge that it was your own stupid fault.
It’s all legitimate subject matter for gallows humor over beers back at the hotel, but definitely nothing to write home about, much less banter about with Letterman.
Alas, the notion that nearly getting killed confers some sort of extra reportorial credibility is a deeply ingrained cultural norm, among both producers and consumers of news. I don’t know who’s to blame for this; maybe it all goes back to Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and the civil war in Spain.
Certainly, Williams was encouraged to put himself at the center of a March 26, 2003, Dateline NBC report about his trip aboard a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter ferrying construction material to troops in southern Iraq.
“My colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq,” then-NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw intoned, introducing Williams’s report. “Brian, tell us about what you got yourself into.” Not: Tell us what happened to the U.S. troops you are covering.
Blame Williams for whatever combination of insecurity, dishonesty and narcissism led him to embellish — misbehavior for which he is appropriately being held accountable now.
The mitigating factor is that he was, to some extent, just meeting the demand, both in NBC’s executive suite and in its audience, for infotainment, starring our intrepid man on the ground.
Williams stands accused of stealing military valor; it would be more accurate to say that the misappropriated valor, if any, belonged to other reporters.
There is indeed much important news that cannot be gathered without real physical risk-taking, as the horrible deaths of Western reporters at the hands of the Islamic State remind us.
TV journalists and still photographers, especially, must get close to the action, and we should admire them for their willingness to do so.
The best ones, though, pride themselves on getting in, getting the story – and getting out safely, without exposing themselves to preventable risks in the process, which is also what the best news organizations (NBC News included, I’m sure) encourage, equip and train them to do.
So let the downfall of Brian Williams be a lesson to everyone: The truth matters, including mundane truths about the practice of journalism, in peace or war.
And to those of us still in the news biz, for the millionth time: We are not the story.
Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post Editorial Board.
© 2015, The Washington Post