Every night, people throughout the country sit down and have a glass of wine with Brian Williams. As a drinking buddy, he’s perfect – engaging and punctual.
But now, after all these years, it appears Williams lacked one ingredient essential to his day job – trustworthiness.
The episode that shredded the newsman’s credibility is widely known. Williams, the suave, affable anchor for NBC’s “Nightly News,” claimed he had been in an U.S. military helicopter forced down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. The reality, as it turned out, was a bit less exciting.
In an on-air apology last week, Williams said he was in fact on a different helicopter, following the one targeted by a rocket-propelled grenade. The newsman said he made a “mistake” and “conflated” the two.
When I worked in the White House press office during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, there were three major news anchors and CNN was just entering the mix. The Internet and cable networks were in their infancy. Social media didn’t exist.
Now, however, news sources are as bountiful as fruit flies, and Twitter, Facebook and similar sites churn out stories at a furious pace. In this buzzing information universe, anyone and everyone can sound off about what did and didn’t happen to Williams and what it all means.
And so they did.
Not only did the newsman’s apology earn him typical tongue-lashings on radio and TV talk shows, but he also became a popular target on Twitter, under the hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers.
In an online exclusive revealing Williams’ recovered memory about the Iraq events, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes quoted angry helicopter crew members who said they had resented his misrepresentation for years.
After initially accepting the anchor’s apology, NBC launched an internal investigation of his statements about the helicopter episode as well as his award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
That turn of events was startling for network leaders who just a few months earlier had awarded Williams a new contract, which the Los Angeles Times reported was $10 million a year for five years. With its evening news show the most watched such broadcast in the United States, NBC clearly believed Williams was worth it, and called him one of “the most trusted journalists of our time.”
Amid all the sturm und drang, one mystery remains:
Given his stature and career of accomplishment, why did Williams feel the need to embellish his alleged brush with death? Was the truth too mundane? Did he want to appear tougher, braver and more like the real soldiers he was covering?
Did he fall victim to the workplace hazard that has ended the careers of journalists who came before him, the temptation to make a story more than it is?
Williams is certainly not the first public figure to tell tall tales or stretch the truth. Hillary Clinton said during a 2008 speech that, as first lady, she had come under sniper fire after landing at an airport in Bosnia. Video footage showed otherwise, and Clinton was forced to correct herself.
Such self-aggrandizing missteps are dangerous enough for politicians. But for journalists, integrity is everything. And for a news anchor like Williams, telling a falsehood stripped away his Kryptonite – that badge of credibility and believability that got millions to tune in every night.
Williams is trying to get it back, but his on-air mea culpa was badly mangled. He appeared to be insincere and reading a script prepared by his producers, who perhaps believed that just the right wording could leave things a bit murky and keep some of his reputation intact.
Whatever their intent, it didn’t work. And instead of being a mere footnote to Williams’ long career, his fib about the helicopter will surely be the headline.
Doug Elmets is president of Sacramento-based Elmets Communications.