Williams’ Lie Takes Toll on Journalism
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you have most likely heard about the Brian Williams scandal.
But, just in case you missed it, NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams was found to have lied about his experiences while traveling with a U.S. Armed Forces unit carrying out a mission south of Baghdad in 2003.
Williams’ original story was aired on NBC Nightly News in March 2003. An American military unit used a fleet of helicopters to deliver supplies to the city of Najaf, Iraq, to build a bridge to cross the Euphrates River.
Williams and his crew were allowed to accompany the unit on their mission. But, according to Williams report, the band of Chinook helicopters was forced to turn southwest and make an emergency landing following their supply drop.
“On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” Williams said during his report. He went on to note a hole in the helicopter caused by a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade.
Williams and the soldiers were met by another unit that was sent to protect the news and military crews that took part in the mission.
But, Williams’ original story underwent a transformation as time went on. Six months after Williams’ report, NBC published a book called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” that vaguely implied Williams was riding in a helicopter that sustained damage from a rocket-propelled grenade.
But, in a 2005 interview on CNBC, Williams again made it clear that the helicopter in front of his was the one that was struck.
In 2007, Williams recalled the events of the mission in a blog post. Here the story begins to become more ambiguous as to if the Chinook that he was in was hit by enemy fire. Later, in a 2008 blog post, Williams made it seem as though his helicopter was under fire.
“We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPGs and AK-47s,” Williams wrote. “The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire.” This is where the story took a turn.
Exactly 10 years after Williams’ original report, he discussed his experience during an interview with David Letterman. This time, he made it seem as though his chopper certainly was hit by enemy fire.
Then in 2015, during a report on NBC Nightly News, Williams retold the story. This time, he claimed the helicopter he was riding in was hit by an RPG. The day after the report aired, one of the pilots of the Chinook that was hit by an RPG called Williams out on Facebook, and said he didn’t remember Williams being on his aircraft.
Four days later, Williams made an apology on NBC Nightly News. Williams was subsequently given a six-month suspension without pay and his name was removed from the NBC Nightly News title for the first time since 2004.
As you can see, Williams’ misstep was not just a blatant misrepresentation of the truth.
His original report didn’t imply that he was in the battered aircraft. But, over the span of more than a decade, Williams began to change his story in an attempt to make himself sound more heroic, something that he should be, and is, ashamed of.
In his attempt to bestow some sense of glory upon himself, he has done substantial harm to the entire journalism industry.
Freedom of the press is an important part of the foundation of the United States, so important that it is a right that is protected by the First Amendment. Freedom of the press was promised by the founding fathers as a means to hold our leaders accountable and to accurately keep the public informed.
But, by protecting this right, the founding fathers bestowed a responsibility upon the press, a responsibility to provide accurate and honest information to Americans. Journalists, by nature, must be held to a higher standard, especially journalists as notable as Williams.
However, Brian Williams put his own personal interest above his responsibility as a member of the press.
Williams’ actions also compromised something that is vital to the press: trust.
Since 2004, millions of viewers allowed Brian Williams into their homes every night out to inform them about the issues that are important to Americans. Journalists require the trust of the public in order to do their jobs. Without trust, the information that journalists work to provide is useless.
Since the Iraq report controversy, Williams has been accused of lying or exaggerating in other reports, such as his coverage of Hurricane Katrina damage in New Orleans. This is what happens when you betray the trust of the American people.
With that being said, some of the response to Williams’ mistake has troubled me. Many people are acting as though Williams is some sort of fascist dictator or mass murderer. He made a mistake. He is a victim of human nature.
We, as Americans, shouldn’t wish ill upon the misguided newscaster. We should remember that for years Williams has done some great work as a journalist and this one mistake shouldn’t overshadow that fact.
We, as a country, need to recognize that rather than add insult to injury. He knows what he did and he knows it was wrong.
I don’t know what further action NBC plans on taking regarding the matter. But, I’m sure they will do what is necessary to protect its credibility as a source of news and to regain the trust of its viewers.