Look, I understand the problem with Brian Williams and journalistic integrity. There is no excuse for his “inflating biography” of self-aggrandizing fabrications. But I have a few thoughts that has me thinking the Williams story is a turning point in journalistic culture. That’s my hope, anyway.
Perhaps you’re not up to speed on today’s news. For the past 12 years NBC Anchor Brian Williams recalled publicly of he and his crew being shot down by enemy fire in Iraq. It was quite the dramatic story of how he braved enemy lines and nearly lost his life for it. “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47. We figure out how to land safely and we did.”
The truth? It was total fabrication. Fantasy. A story morphed over time to be something that it was not. Didn’t happen.
As I publish this blog post, there is a growing mob of flesh-eating haters who are tearing Williams to pieces. I suppose the feast must commence. He took a leave of absence yesterday, and I suspect he will be out of a job very soon.
But when I witnessed his apology, I was relieved. Here’s why.
Williams was clinging to the truth, and I don’t see journalists — or much of anyone — doing this too often anymore.
In today’s political and journalistic desert, Williams was a cool, refreshing taste of water. I have three thoughts on this that I hope you take into consideration.
1. I’ll Take Williams Over Rather Any Day
I couldn’t help but compare Williams’ apology to Dan Rather’s. In 2004, the CBS Anchor ran a story that was — beyond any doubt — a boggled attempt to disparage the sitting president’s reelection campaign. Documents were blatantly forged to make President Bush out to be a draft dodger. The story ran and within days bloggers had exposed that which CBS should have seen. Heads rolled at CBS over the scandal, the story’s producer fired, and Dan Rather was eventually forced into retirement.
But this is what is most disturbing: Dan Rather to this day insists the story is true.
There isn’t a human being on the planet who thinks the documents used in the reporting were authentic. Go ahead and think the worst of George Bush, but to carry water for this fabrication is lunacy. “Nobody has proved that [the documents] were fraudulent, much less a forgery,” Rather insisted three years later on Larry King Live. “The truth of this story stands up to this day.”
Williams could have followed in Rather’s footsteps. Do the Collin Raye, That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Deny the truth, never surrender, believe the original narrative. That seems to be the template in today’s world.
Instead, Williams did what I wish Dan Rather would do: tell the truth.
Come clean and fess up. It is so incredibly refreshing to hear someone admit, as Williams did, that he made the mistake of fabricating a story that wasn’t real. He lied, and — like Rather — Williams may lose his job over it.
So be it. That’s not what is really gnawing me. This is…
2. Being Fine With the Fabrications
Forget Williams for a moment. Think of all of NBC. Williams wasn’t alone in this story. He has producers, aids, office workers, countless others that were in on the fabrication. The vets were the ones who weeded out the lie, but why didn’t NBC? Or the media entourage that was embedded in Iraq in the first place?
Same with Rather and CBS in 2004. Bloggers exposed the truth, not CBS. Nor other journalists, even those in competing news agencies. They instead circled the wagons around Dan Rather and defended him for his wit, his charm, and his stardom as a news anchor. Heck, he was even given a journalist award in 2007, and he’s still revered as one of the greatest journalists of all time!
Brian Williams isn’t the only one who fabricated an “I was shot down by enemy fire” story. Hillary Clinton did nearly the same exact thing in 2004 referring to how she braved sniper fire in Bosnia. Again, total fabrication. And again, it was alternative media — not democrats or the mainstream media or Hillary Clinton herself — who uncovered the truth. The only thing different about Hillary from Williams is that Hillary never apologized. She blames sleep deprivation for her “misspeaking.”
This isn’t misspeaking, misleading, or making mistakes. These are lies. More disturbing: there is a culture of lying supporters who don’t seem to care. They’re okay with the lies, fine with the fabrications.
It appeared that Williams was attempting a different path than Rather and Clinton. Yeah, sure, maybe he’s still lying. But I’ll take his apology prima facie. On its face, I hope you see the greater opportunity here…
3. Finding Freedom in Truth
I was reminded recently of one of my posts from a year ago, Wrecking Biebs. I suppose you can say I defended a liar. I stuck up for Justin Bieber when he was being publicly judged for juvenile behavior. Crucified, really, for throwing an egg at his neighbor’s house and speeding in Miami.
Petty as this behavior was, a couple weeks ago the Biebs posted a public apology for his behavior. He went on the Ellen Show and continued the confession, insisting that he desires to be a good person and do that which is right in life. It was his first appearance on television in nearly a year.
You know what? I’ll take his apology. Same with Brian Williams. And here’s why:
- I need to see people brave the murky truth.
- I need to encourage them when they do.
- I need to be just as brave.
That third point is what resonates with me. That’s how I’m falling on the Brian Williams story. I don’t want to sound like I’m justifying him or Justin Bieber or anyone who thinks a fabricated narrative of their life is okay, but I do want to always be open to them when they come around.
Tall tales do not set us free. Only the truth does. My hope is that journalists — all of us, really — brave those stories.