This past week NBC announced that Nightly News anchor, Brian Williams, would be suspended for six months without pay. This follows the outbreak of a scandal dating back to Williams’ reporting on the Iraq War in 2003. Essentially, the original story consisted of a certain group of helicopters being shot at. However, as the story has been retold over the years, the intensity accelerated to the degree that Brian Williams stated that he, himself, was actually in a helicopter that was shot at.
Two weeks ago, the story was brought up again in the evening broadcast, but this time many viewers and people who were actually present in Iraq at that time with Williams attacked him for reporting the assault on the helicopter as fact. A few days later, Williams apologized on his broadcast for “misremembering” and misleading his viewers—but for many media critics it wasn’t enough.
Williams was further scrutinized for the apology and the absurdity of the story to begin with. Since then, many of his other reports were looked into for falsities and exaggerations. Williams then removed himself from the broadcast for a few days in light of the investigations, but soon thereafter the suspension was announced.
Needless to say, it’s been a rollercoaster of a couple of weeks for any dedicated Brian Williams viewer.
So here’s the thing about anybody that watches the same news show on a regular basis: you are letting whoever this reporter and/or anchor are, into your home. Through your television in the family room, kitchen, or bedroom, this person has inserted themselves into your daily routine. Gradually, I would argue that this person actually becomes an influential person in your life. I would watch Mr. Williams every night when I was home, and at school I would watch the broadcast online the next morning. I referred to him solely as Brian, and basically acted like I knew the man. Brian has told me about the events of the world every night for five straights years—therefore this alleged lying is personal, because I trusted him. And no, I’m not okay jumping over to Scott Pelley on CBS like it’s no big deal, I find him old and dull.
My point here is that I hold the broadcast journalists in my life to incredibly high standards in exchange for almost boundless loyalty. I loved watching Brian every evening. As a journalist I found him calm, poised and easy to follow. He exuded trustworthiness and charisma while taking every story seriously but keeping his narration light and human (I swear he cracked a subtle joke about getting baked once). All this just made me enjoy watching him more.
On a more serious note, the core ideal of journalism is to tell the truth. Whether you are an at-home contributor to a local online newspaper for a single town or Mr. Brian Williams himself, you cannot forget that fact. That simple statement is the reason that I want to be a journalist. At the end of the day, no matter what you are covering, the job of a journalist is to explain the truth in a way for everyone to understand.
Personally, I can’t think of anything I would rather do; it’s an honor. When a journalist instead lies or inserts themself into the story (due to an honest mistake or sly desire to entertain), that’s where I draw the line. I’m sorry but even if it’s one of the best broadcast journalists in the country that thinks it is okay to lie, then I don’t think they deserve their position.
That’s actually really hard for me to say considering I loved Brian Williams. But I don’t think it is fair to ask any citizen, any viewer, or any journalist to ignore this mishap because we liked the man. I agree with the suspension he got, though I greatly hope that this lie was a stand-alone act and all of his other reports are sound.
I think we are all creatures of habit and want to feel like we know the people who give us our news each day. Habit allows us to often forget that it’s important not to just take one source as absolute truth, because everyone will tell the story a little differently. It just goes to show the harsh reality of journalism: as a reporter, the job is to portray the news in the best way you can. No matter how bright the lights feel or how large the audience is, the objective is to tell the truth, not to make it entertaining. So Brian, don’t lie.