MEDIA POLITICS-In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton lied when she claimed that she’d run across an airport tarmac in Bosnia to avoid sniper fire. It was left up to the comedian Sinbad, who was on the same trip with Clinton, to set her straight when he recalled that the only scary part of the trip was where they could all eat next.
Ronald Reagan actually told an Israeli prime minister that he’d been among the American troops liberating Auschwitz, when in reality the old liar had spent World War II making movies Stateside for the military’s First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, Calif. Not nearly as big a deal as the lies he told to hide his role in the Iran-Contras, hostages-for-arms dealings that should have ended his presidency, and instead only turned another inveterate liar—Oliver North—into a cult hero.
Lyndon Johnson’s lies could drown Texas. When he became president, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the actress, Congresswoman and one of LBJ’s many mistresses, said she was certain that “we had heard the last frank response to a question from the press.” She knew her liars: she’d lost to Richard Nixon in a Senate race 13 years earlier. As for GWB, all we have to say is WMD.
That politicians lie is not a surprise. For some it’s part of the job description. Reporters and news anchors know that. They report on lies daily. Brian Williams of NBC news reported those of Clinton and Bush. He’d also just become anchor of NBC’s nightly news when he reported on the retirement of Dan Rather from CBS, a retirement hastened by Rather’s blundered report on Bush’s suspicious military service. Rather never lied. He just reported a sloppy story that was never backed up by solid evidence. And soon after that, Rather was in essence fired when CBS refused to renew his contract. Williams reported on that, too.
When reporters lie, they break the industry’s equivalent of a Hippocratic oath. They do great harm—to their organization’s credibility, but also to the people they cover and the audiences who trust them. Williams, it turns out, is an outright liar. He’s been telling a story about being shot down in a helicopter in the early days of the Iraq war. Totally false. Veterans and Stars and Stripes, the military’s newspaper, corrected him. He was forced to apologize.
He lied even in his apology. He claimed he’d been following the helicopter that was struck. He hadn’t. His helicopter was forced to land because of a sand storm. Only later was Williams able to speak to the crew of the copter hit by an RPG round, when that aircraft landed in the same place. He claimed he’d “conflated” some events in a “bungled attempt” to publicly thank a veteran on the PA system at a New York Rangers game (another one of those moments of choreographed pandering the television camera and its distortive effects love so much). That was a lie too because two years ago on Letterman Williams marked the 10th anniversary of that bogus story by going on the show and boasting about it.
Brian Williams, telling his lie to Tom Brokaw in 2003. Williams originally told his tall tale in a NBC report when Tom Brokaw was in the anchor chair. “A colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies above Iraq,” Brokaw told his audience in that report. “Brian, tell us what you got yourself into.”
“In the end Tom,” Williams replied, “it did give us a glimpse of the war being fought as few have seen it.” He was right in one respect: Williams’s report was part of a series of surreal, fictional, bogus or fabricated stories that poured out of the front in those early weeks, whether it was the way the media invented Jessica Lynch’s bogus heroics or choreographed the felling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Fidros Square as it all led up to the mother of all fictions, Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln. All befitting a war born of a lie. In a way, singling out Williams for contributing to mass chest-thumping at home may seem a bit unfair: his lie was minor compared to the overt and far more consequential lies the nation’s leading news media were peddling on behalf of the Bush regime.
Those early days of the war—as Williams was supposedly behind enemy lines in his shot-down helicopter—American television screens were often filled with the hilarity of Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi information minister who became famous for giving Iraq its own version of the Pentagon’s Five O’Clock Follies in Vietnam as he stood on one corner or another, claiming that American troops were committing suicide, their invasion thwarted even as you could hear the rumble of American advances nearby.
But again. Baghdad Bob was only a less sophisticated version of the Bush propaganda machine, which America’s news media happily oiled and broadcast. Embedding was seen as an honor, rather than, as the word explicitly means, being in bed with the government. Williams was an embed when he told his lie, too. Maybe Williams and Baghdad Bob (photo) had a beer somewhere along the way.
But there’s a limit to Williams’s hilarity. Getting shot at isn’t the sort of thing you conflate with anything. It either happened or it didn’t. The rest is Hollywood, which TV reporters are often closer to than truth of any depth. Equally troubling, as a pile of analysts have pointed out, is the fact that Williams was accompanied by an NBC crew whose members never said a word to correct him, including his producer, who’s essentially his fact-checker and editor.
Even more troubling is NBC’s reaction: There hasn’t been any. Until the end of the week Williams was in his anchor chair, blathering on in faux-gravity about this and that scandal while NBC did its best to hide the herd of elephants in the studio. Now we’re led to believe that it was Williams who pulled himself off his newscast—not NBC President Deborah Turness who removed him, though the network finally came around to an investigation of the Iraq lie and possibly others in the Williams oeuvre.
When reporters are caught plagiarizing or fabricating stories (different denominations of the same deceptive currency) they’re fired: Stephen Glass of the New Republic, Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post (she won a Pulitzer in 1981 after fabricating a tale about an 8-year-old heroin addict). Willful sloppiness is no excuse, either, as the New York Times’s Judith Miller found out after her fiction-filled WMD coverage (naturally she took refuge for a while at Fox, where fiction’s courtesans always have a home), and of course as Dan Rather found out.
But Williams so far gets to decide his own fate. He’s not like other reporters. He’s media’s equivalent of too big to fail: a $10 million-a-year man still delivering ratings.
His memo announcing his brief hiatus left no doubt about his intentions, or his inability to gauge his error: “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.” That “career-long” and “effort” no longer belong in a Williams sentence is a minor point. So is the presumption of that upon my return, from the allegedly most self-deprecating man in network news.
But that the anchor of the nation’s leading newscast thinks it’s still up to him to return begs the question: who was in charge at NBC when Williams filed his original fabrication, and who’s in charge now? Politicians and public love to bash media. Often enough the wounds are self-inflicted, but also corrected, we hope.
If Williams does return, it’s difficult to imagine how the credibility of NBC News can survive when it’s played in the same sandbox as Baghdad Bob.
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