WASHINGTON — These are tough times for NBC’s Brian Williams — and tougher times for journalism. The NBC newsman is off the air while the network is “gathering the facts” about charges that he misremembered or conflated wartime incidents he reported on from Iraq and Israel. He has also come under scrutiny for possible conflations in reporting from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Williams told stories that, among other things, misrepresented his proximity to danger or death. Some have called his reportage “humble-bragging,” a term for trying to enhance your reputation by focusing on supposed duress. Others see Williams’ false reports as outright lies for self-aggrandizement, while still others concede that sometimes stories change in the retelling. Over time, don’t we all conflate incidents and mess up details to some degree?
Some mixture of all this may be at play in Williams’ case, though one persistent thought nags like a rude kid yanking on your coat sleeve, “Hey, lady, that guy’s a 10-million-buck newsman; he ain’t supposed to get the facts mixed up!”
The first misremembrance, for which Williams apologized before taking leave, pertains to a 2003 incident in Iraq. Williams said that the Army Chinook he was riding in was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade — except that his helicopter wasn’t the one that was hit. Then in 2006, while covering the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Williams initially reported on MSNBC that he was flying at about 1,500 feet and could see two rockets launched from about six miles away. A month later, the story changed when he told Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart that rockets passed 1,500 feet below his helicopter. Then in 2007, he told an audience at Fairfield University that the rockets sailed just beneath him.
These are conflicting statements, but are they malicious or intentionally misleading? Our recollection of traumatic events is often flawed in some part because fear alters the brain and memory. Whether one is hit or not, the terror of flying where rockets are near can magnify and distort events.
This is not to make excuses for Williams, but to put into perspective this particular chapter. He wasn’t officially reporting in subsequent renditions but was entertaining an audience with war stories. Is an anchor always an anchor, or does Brian Williams get to be just Brian on occasion?
Less easily understood or justified is how one could recall being brought down by a grenade when one was not. More embarrassing than contemptible, these stories can be seen as attempting to add a little sweat and grime rather than egoistic sheen to a squeaky-clean profile. It is hard to imagine why Williams would falsely report events from his perch in one of broadcast journalism’s most coveted jobs for slightly louder applause. Pure ego? Extravagant insecurity? Loss of perspective that often accompanies wealth and celebrity? Were these retellings merely overembellished anecdotes or evidence of something more pathological in nature?
Williams and his therapist will have to soldier through that one. In the New Orleans incident, Williams reported that he saw a corpse floating down the street from his hotel window. But Williams was in the Ritz-Carlton on the edge of the French Quarter, where there was little to no flooding.
Unlike so many who are backstroking in schadenfreude, I’m torn between feeling sorry for Williams, and wanting to see him step aside out of respect for what remains of journalistic principle.
However. At the end of the newscast — or the story or column — what matters most in journalism is credibility and public trust, both of which have suffered in recent years. It isn’t only that news delivery has become more slanted as partisanship displaces objectivity, but that high-profile individuals and institutions have squandered trust in pursuit of something other than truth. Williams likely fell into the trap of trying to be part of a story of heroism. His sin was reckless, but is it cause for ending a career?
Many wager that money will determine the answer — Williams makes a bunch for the network — but the bottom line depends entirely on one crucial question: Will people ever trust Williams again? At the very least, Williams deserves to find out.
[Editor’s note: Mr. Williams was suspended for six months by NBC late Tuesday.]
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.