Brian Williams and the Price of Hubris

The straw dogs are out in force in a full-fledged media frenzy aimed at one of the best known and most highly respected television journalists in the business. The media are out for blood, and this time the target is one of their own. At last count, Google News is reporting 1,147 articles related to Brian Williams’ admission of fabricating details of a 2003 event and, after scanning the entire 1,147, it appears that 98 percent of them are calling for Williams’ head.

Williams, 55, has been the managing editor and anchor on the NBC Nightly News for the past ten years, during which time he has become the most recognizable active newsperson in the business, and second only to Walter Cronkite in terms of name recognition and credibility. (Actually, he would be third, after Cronkite and Barbara Walters, according to a survey published on  Walters has not, however, anchored an evening news program in many years.  Her reputation depends instead on her involvement with The View.)

Now, with astonishing quickness, people who a week ago would have crawled over broken glass to be interviewed by Brian Williams are calling for his removal as the anchor of the most popular news program on the air today.  (After years of NBC’s total dominance of network news ratings, ABC and NBC are now running neck and neck, with ABC giving NBC a run for its money for the first time since 2007, according to the Huffington Post)

According to published reports, Williams has admitted that he spoke in error when he claimed several times over the years that the U.S. Army helicopter in which he was riding while covering the war in Iraq in 2003 had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). It was, in fact, another helicopter on the same mission that was hit by the RPG. Rich Krell, the pilot of the helicopter in which Williams was riding, has told reporters that his chopper had taken small arms fire but had not been hit by a grenade.

In telling, and retelling, this story, Williams violated the most basic rule of journalism: Stay Out of the Story. Unfortunately for the veracity of the news gathering process, this edict is increasingly more honored in the breach than the observance in a day and age when reporters have routinely become parts of the stories they are covering.

The first casualty from this pattern of reporters becoming part of the story is the loss of journalistic objectivity. When you are part of the story, you inevitably become a partisan and will no longer be able to separate your personal interests as a news item from your responsibility to report what happened, rather than what you think about it.

Reporters are very powerful people. When Walter Cronkite came out against the War in Vietnam, his declaration was the final straw that made the sitting president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, decide against running for another term, paving the way for Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. There is very little doubt that, had Johnson run for a second term, he would have won in a walk over Nixon in a contest that would have pitted a very poor campaigner against a very good one.

Cronkite was not the first television reporter to change the course of American history. Edward R. Murrow was the first, when his public excoriation of red-baiting Wisconsin Senator Charles McCarthy shredded the senator’s credibility along with his popularity and any chance of either retaining his office as a senator or running for president.

Since Cronkite ruled the roost in television journalism from 1962 to 1981, only a select few reporters have made it to the big time in terms of credibility and corresponding respect – Tom Brokaw at NBC (1982-2004), Peter Jennings at ABC (1965-1968, 1983-2005) and Dan Rather at CBS (1981-2005.)

Since 2005, however, the Big Three, as they were known, retired or, in Jennings case, passed away, leaving Brian Williams to become the undisputed doyen of television news until these allegations surfaced.

It is a matter of record that Williams inherited the dominance of NBC’s nightly news program from the Brokaw era, stepping into his mentor’s shoes as the heir apparent when Brokaw stepped down. By then, Jennings was fighting a losing battle against cancer, and Rather’s long-term reputation for erratic behavior and odd personality quirks began to erode his credibility, leaving an empty field for Williams to step into.

There is no doubt that Williams is a good reporter and a good managing editor, but there is considerable doubt about whether he can overcome this challenge to his term of office as the leader of NBC news. The facts, however, are more ambiguous than they seem. There is no doubt that Williams came under a rocket propelled grenade attack when another chopper on the same mission was hit. In combat there is a common assertion that whatever happens to one member of a unit happens to the entire unit. That is called “unit identification” and it is one of the most vital elements in the maintenance of esprit d’corp, the sense of belonging that holds military units together.

The fact that it was another chopper in the same formation that got hit matters little because everyone in that formation felt attacked when the other chopper was hit. More specifically, because it could have been William’s chopper that took the hit, there is a psychological transference that made anyone on that mission feel as though they had been targets….because they obviously were.   Anyone who has ever been in combat knows this. According to some sources, the helicopter that Williams was on took small arms fire. According to other sources, it did not. This is easily resolved by referring to the copious records the U.S. Army keeps about every action in which troops are engaged. There is no doubt, however, that Williams came under fire while covering the war in Iraq.  He did not lie about that.

Williams’ assertion that he saw bodies floating in the water in the French Quarter during the Hurricane Katrina disaster is a slightly different matter. While there is no doubt that there were bodies floating in the water…we all saw them on the televised coverage….there is no doubt that those bodies were NOT in the French Quarter because the French Quarter was never under water. The fact that Williams misidentified the location of the bodies in the middle of the chaos in New Orleans could easily be attributed to the “fog of war” factor. New Orleans during Katrina was much like a war zone and a non-resident could be forgiven for not being able to identify the French Quarter from the air, especially if the chopper pilot was having some fun with the big shot news anchor.

Much of this is frivolous, but it is also a telling illustration of why reporters should stay out of their stories and report the facts rather than reporting their roles in collecting the facts. Once you become part of the story, your credibility will inevitably be called into question on such inaccuracies as these.

It is important to note that Williams is not being excoriated for any failure on his part with respect to gathering and reporting the news. There, his integrity has so far gone without question. More than anything else, the rabble complaining about Williams are really complaining about his status, not his inaccuracies. Williams is a media celebrity, famous for being famous. His appearance on Saturday Night Live is a case in point. Most reporters will never be invited to host Saturday Night Live, or appear on the other programs on which Williams has appeared. Underlying the gleeful critiques about Williams that are flooding the internet is an unseemly jealousy tinged with sour grapes. This is about hubris, about taking the big man down a notch.

In this day and age of mob rule via the internet, there is very little chance that Williams will survive the artificial rancor now being heaped upon him. In the real world, the world before the internet, this would not have merited more than a couple of paragraphs and an apology. The internet has, however, put the mob in charge, and the horses of the media apocalypse have the bits between their teeth.

The losers, unfortunately, will be the rest of us, and especially those of us who actually cherish a sincere, objective, compassionate view of current events, because those are the attributes that Williams brought to the news desk. Indeed, the visceral credibility that Brian Williams brought back to the anchorman’s role will be replaced by a series of nobodies who have never been under fire, rather than one who was, whether or not he was in the chopper that got hit. The age of the seasoned veteran reporter rising to the top of his or her craft is now over, because the circumstances for producing such veterans no longer exist.