COMMENTS: What is Trivial and What is Serious about Brian Williams' Fib

One of the advantages of watching the network nightly newscasts on broadcast television every night for almost 30 years now, is that when a controversy arises like the one swirling around NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and his 2003 reporting experiences during the invasion of Iraq, I can go to the videotape.

Yes, I actually watched his March 26th report from that year on that attack on Chinook helicopters on VHS tape from my archive last night. Erik Wemple at the Washington Post has the transcript here.

The main angle of Williams' report twelve years ago turned out not to be the rocket-propelled-grenade attack on the Chinook convoy in which he was traveling, but the ensuing sandstorm after the helicopters made their emergency landing in response to the attack and the Abrams tanks that protected them for a couple of days thereafter.

The human-interest tribute to Tim Terpak, the retiring sergeant who enjoys Rangers hockey, which precipitated the current crisis, also focused on the Abrams tanks not the Chinook helicopters, since the sergeant served on the ground not in the air.

The falsehood in Williams' account resides in the embellishment from "I was flying in a convoy of four low-flying helicopters that came under fire, one of which was hit, and was forced to land" to "I was flying in a convoy of four low-flying helicopters that came under fire, two of which were hit, including the one in which I happened to be riding, and was forced to land."

Incidentally, Stars and Stripes quotes helicopter crewmen who do not remember Williams as flying in the Chinook convoy in the first place, which, if true, would make Williams' woes much more serious than they are at present, since his original 2003 report would be impugned, too. Leaving that aside, Brian Stelter at CNN offers a timeline of Williams' various accounts.

Stelter reports that the first time that Williams is on the record as misrepresenting the grenade attack, redirecting it from the convoy as a whole to the particular helicopter in which he was riding, was ten years after the event, when he shared the anecdote with David Letterman on CBS' Late Show. This contradicts the apology Williams made last night on his newscast that his failure of memory occurred for the first time when he was composing his tribute to Terpak.

Be that as it may, journalistically speaking, Williams' fudging of these details is trivial. His embellishment of the level of danger in which he found himself twelve years ago does absolutely nothing to undermine his account of Sergeant Terpak's valor, nor of our understanding of the circumstances of the invasion along the Euphrates river valley. If Williams is in trouble -- and he is -- it is not because of an egregious error in his journalism.

So what is the problem here? Two quick thoughts:

First, the position of anchorman on a network nightly newscast is not just a journalistic one. Williams also has the status of a television celebrity (hence his appearance on Letterman) and as such his appeal to his viewers rests not only on his journalistic bona fides but also on his personality. Is he, personally, perceived by his audience to be intelligent, honest, trustworthy, proportionate, of sound judgment? So, granted, his little fib about which Chinook he was riding in has no journalistic import. Yet it has great import as a glimpse into a flaw in his character. To the extent that this fib makes him look vainglorious, self-aggrandizing, melodramatic, reckless and opportunistic, his journalistic "personality" is damaged as surely as his fudge of the facts turned out to be, journalistically, trivial.

Second, this particular fib that Williams chose to tell -- to identify himself all the more closely with the perils soldiers face in battle -- derives from his underlying editorial judgment to offer instinctive support to the members of the uniformed armed forces. NBC's Williams is not alone in this editorial judgment: CNN's Jake Tapper wrote a bestseller in praise of warriors in Afghanistan; CBS' Lara Logan famously undermined Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone in order to defend a special forces general; ABC's Bob Woodruff sponsors an annual celebrity fundraiser at Madison Square Garden for disabled combat veterans. And it is not only journalists that exhibit such "instinctive support," which is in truth a mere euphemism for "kneejerk adulation." Anyone who attends a major league baseball game observes the same unquestioning endorsement of the uniform and those who wear it.

Jim Fallows of The Atlantic recently observed that such "reverent" solidarity with our troops acts as a ring-fence that protects the entire military-industrial complex from the scrutiny it deserves. So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast's self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon's role in the domestic body politic and the nation's foreign policy. Thus his newscast functions more as supportive propagandist than as skeptical journalist where the armed forces are concerned -- and helps keep Fallows' ring-fence impregnable.


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