By Emma Buchman
The journalism world just cannot catch a break right now. NBC’s “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams is the center of a public scandal after he admitted that his much-told story of his helicopter being downed by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War was exaggerated (to say the least).
What started as one false report has turned into a snowball of inquiries that have led to an investigation of Williams’ reporting, along with a six-month suspension for Williams himself. One element of the investigation is the time that Williams spent with Seal Team Six, the team that infiltrated Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and killed bin Laden. Williams stated that he rode into Iraq with this team in 2003, a claim which has been refuted by Special Operations Command spokesmen Ken McGraw. Additionally, Williams stated on one of his frequent visits to the “Late Show with David Letterman,” that one of the members of Seal Team Six sent him a knife that he had been admiring in the helicopter before their mission. On another visit to the “Late Show,” he claimed to have been sent a piece of the fuselage from the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in the courtyard of bin Laden’s hide-out.
There are other claims that Williams has made that are currently under investigation, including his claim that he saw a dead body floating in the French Quarter during his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
My main question is this: how did no one pick up on these exaggerations sooner? The only indication I have seen that Williams’ stories were previously questioned is from his predecessor Tom Brokaw, who according to NPR had been warning various colleagues at NBC about Williams’ hyperbolic stories for a year now. Even so, why for only one year? According to various reports, the French Quarter in New Orleans avoided a lot of the flooding caused by Katrina, although some reports say that the outlying streets did receive some flooding. Williams has been the anchor of the “Nightly News” for over 10 years; these are stories that should have been questioned long before now.
This whole mess is surrounded by assumptions and speculations, not only concerning Williams’ stories but also the actual facts that will prove their validity. However, I think that enough of the people implicated in Williams’ reporting are furrowing their brows and questioning his claims and making his guilt unquestionable, at least until NBC’s investigation has concluded. There’s always the standard that one is innocent until proven guilty, but there’s also the standard of knowing when somebody is lying through their teeth.
There are theories that Williams merely suffered from false memory or, in Williams’ words, “the fog of memory” so many years after the fact. There is no way that all of these incidents can be false memories. Williams cannot be blameless for all of these false reports. Maybe he didn’t do it maliciously, but the fact of the matter is that he did it regardless.
Overall, I’m extremely disappointed. I remember watching Williams on the news with friends back in high school and enjoying hearing the news from him. He made you feel comfortable listening to him and he seemed to be an intelligent, humorously dry anchor who was giving you the straight news. When I heard the news break about him I thought, ‘That can’t be true. There is no way that Brian Williams could have done that.’ Is it the worst thing that he could have done as a journalist and an anchor? No. Nevertheless, it makes his career and his public standing more important to him than honest journalism, and that is more than enough.