When television was in its early stages, the role of the nightly news anchor came to fruition. Journalism legends began with CBS' Walter Cronkite and eventually led to the female anchor, such as Wellesley alumna Diane Sawyer and Yahoo News' Katie Couric. Every night, viewers place their trust in these reporters to bring them the news of the day without embellishment or bias. Brian Williams has broken this trust by embellishing his stories, and as a result, broke the contract between anchor and viewer. Rather than providing us with the facts, he weaves tales, such as saving puppies from burning buildings and witnessing atrocities, that paint him as a hero.
Recent reports suggest that Williams embellished the details of several stories -- most notably a story in which he claims that his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire while covering the Iraq War in 2003. Additional reports have come under scrutiny, including Williams' coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- the coverage that earned his show a Peabody Award among other honors. In Williams' report, he claimed that he suffered from dysentery after ingesting flood water -- these claims were later refuted by an EMS worker who said that he did not recall a single case of gastroenteritis during Hurricane Katrina and the following month. In an earlier report, Williams claimed that he rescued a puppy from a burning home as a teenage volunteer firefighter. He later contradicts himself in an interview with GQ, Williams claims he saved not one, but two puppies from the very same fire.
In light of these allegations and a pending internal investigation, Williams and NBC released the following statement last week:
In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.
As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.
As someone who watched the news every morning and evening growing up, I put a lot of trust in my news anchors. I trust that the news the anchors tell me is a factual and accurate depiction of what is happening in the world. Now, I am not saying that I believe Brian Williams is not a talented reporter -- he would not have gotten to where he is if he was not talented. Rather, his embellishments undermine the validity of all of his stories and elicit doubt from his viewers.
The doubt garnered by the allegations surrounding Williams has inevitably caused a stir, not only for NBC, but for other news channels as well. Now, viewers are a bit more cautious about blindly trusting their anchors. I believe that due to Williams' prominent position in the field of journalism, doubt has been casted on other news anchors. If Brian Williams can pull it off, who is to say that other journalists are not or will not do the same?
I do not think there is a way to prevent the fabrication or embellishment of news stories. It is indisputable that a more dramatic story sells the most papers -- or in today's age, generates more views and "likes." Viewers cannot really control what the media distributes, but they can check the facts after the story is released. My mother, a former journalist, always told me to check the facts before I render any judgments or opinions regarding a news story. While we both have faith in the institution of journalism, it is still a business -- a business whose the sole objective is to sell the story. With this objective, I believe that embellishment could be used to sell a story more effectively. All news stories are given through a lens -- a lens that differs depending on the news company and anchor -- and viewers need to acknowledge and see past the lens.
While I believe in second chances, I think Williams broke the trust he had with his viewers on multiple occasions and therefore does not deserve a reprieve. It is one thing to make a mistake, acknowledge it and move forward. It is an entirely different ball game to knowingly commit the same act multiple times and not acknowledge it. Despite the fact that Williams felt the need to prove himself, having assumed the anchor desk less than a year prior to Hurricane Katrina, it is no excuse to fabricate or embellish a story. To paraphrase Robert de Niro's character, Jack Byrnes from Meet the Parents, once someone is outside of the circle, they cannot reenter. I believe that Brian Williams broke the circle of trust between himself and NBC viewers, and should not return to the NBC Nightly News.
This post was first published in The Wellesley News, Wellesley College's student newspaper.