Brian Williams & Bigger Problems in Journalism


“I think the thing that makes the story suspect is he violated one of the rules of old soldier’s war stories. That is you tell war stories about the adventures of others that you observe. Many of his war stories are about him. He became a part of the story. “

Lt. Gen Russell Honore’, former commander of restoration after Hurricane Katrina, commenting for the CNN show Reliable Sources February 8, 2015 on NBC News anchor Brian Williams reporting from New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm.

Good journalism is enhanced by good story telling, my spouse, a former broadcast anchor often reminds me, but good story telling is not necessarily good journalism.

Brian Williams has apparently forgotten the distinction.

Story telling is important, but subordinate to the news. It is a means of transmitting facts and information in a manner that illuminates and enlightens or just helps you understand in vivid terms what the weather people in the Northeast are putting up with. It is a way of colorizing the human condition. To qualify as journalism, however, the story telling has to be factual and accurate. It’s got to be truthful. Period.

None of those criteria apparently applied in Williams’ recounting of one of his experiences in Iraq, in which he claimed the Chinook helicopter in which he was riding was downed by rocket-propelled grenades. They were absent, too, in his account of Hurricane Katrina coverage in New Orleans where he says he watched a dead body float by his hotel, was threatened by gang violence, and witnessed a suicide.

What actually happened in these cases and maybe others, we are told now, may have been ‘misremembered,’ ‘conflated,’ or ‘confused.’

Sorry, I have to digress. I love the new terms for lying. I can just imagine as a youngster kneeling in the dark confessional in the basement of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, telling the priest I conflated the story I told my mom about beating up my little brother in the backyard. “Bless me Father. I have sinned. I conflated to my mom when I said it wasn’t me, it was really my sister.”

‘Well’, replies the father confessor, ‘as long as you only conflated and didn’t lie, for your penance just say one Hail Mary instead of nine rosaries and the stations of the cross. Now make an act of contrition, and don’t conflate any more.’

Williams has been suspended for six months and docked half his salary, while NBC ‘reviews’ his conflations. But I doubt we will see his anchorship at the helm again.

There is more to this than Brian’s tall tales though. Much more.

The Williams incident is not unique, and it would be a loss of an opportunity to assume that Williams doing his penance is the end of it.

There is an egregious trend in modern journalism to tell a potent story at the expense of the facts, as was demonstrated so horrifically by that paragon of journalistic virtue, Rolling Stone and the UVA rape allegations. The impact of the story becomes more important than the facts therein. It is not good journalism. It isn’t journalism at all.

There is also an egregious transformation in broadcast journalism that should be of even greater concern. Williams was a byproduct of it and maybe a sad victim of it.

It is the domination of the industry by a celebrity culture in which news and entertainment have become indistinguishable, in which otherwise level-headed journalists are canonized into god-like figures sheltered from the cold of worldly realities in a pantheon crowded with trusted assistants, limousine drivers, hair stylists, autograph seekers, make-up artists, agents, weight trainers, marketers, and managers.

The always astute George Stephanopoulos honed in on it on his Sunday show with one of his guests, as did Maureen Dowd in an excellent Sunday piece in the New York Times, as did B. Jay Cooper, whose piece appears elsewhere here, and several other media pundits and critics.

Williams let himself become the poster child of the culture and he has been one of the foremost enablers of what Dowd described as “part of the entertainment, branding, and cross-promotion business” side of the media.

He used his perch on Mount Olympus to promote himself and the business interests of NBC, ranging from the marketing of his daughter’s role in the NBC special Peter Pan, to the incessant cross-marketing of the quickly cancelled show, Rock Center and one of its celebrity stars, Chelsea Clinton. His promotion of Maria Shriver, inexplicitly as both newsmaker and news reporter in the same broadcasts, has been jaw dropping. His self-promoting commercials came dangerously close to comparing him to brave men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He made appearances on sitcoms and talk shows, all part of the celebrity-centric infotainment business model I’ve written about many times. As Maureen Dowd put it, ”…the performers—Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Bill Maher—were doing more serious stuff, (while) the supposedly serious guys were doing more performing.” Jon Stewart, a comedian, is thought to be a serious contender for the anchor position.

Again, the problem is greater than Williams. It is tough today to distinguish between performers and journalists throughout network and cable news. Look no farther than David Muir, the new camera-ready, camera compulsive anchor of ABC News. His marketing rivals that of Williams, raising Muir to an exalted status and imagery that would have made Walter Cronkite blush.

Again from the Dowd column: “….in an interview with Fusion, Muir acted out the facial expressions he used during his broadcast: “the listening face,” the “really listening face,” and the “really concerned” face. Are we to believe that Cronkite, Huntley, Reynolds, Brokaw, or Gibson spent a lot of time in front of the bathroom mirror practicing their look of concern or compassion?

The third issue is one that puzzles us all.

In the age of Internet exposure why in the world would anyone in the public eye lie repeatedly or exaggerate the truth? They know they’re going to get caught. Why do they do it?

Hopefully, Williams will enlighten us once he is back on Earth. Questions about what Williams did, and why, deserve answers. Those questions and the broader issues at stake here deserve more than a cursory review.

Brian Williams and his troubles will fade to black, probably sooner rather than later, but the media and the public should not let this opportunity for introspection pass unattended. Williams’ career may fade to black, but the broader concerns and what they portend for a precious and essential democratic institution in this country and around the world should not.

Let’s focus less on Williams and more on what brought him to his knees.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.