by Avi Davis
It has been some time since a famous news anchor actually became the subject of a sensational news story himself. So it was with some interest that I read the revelations that Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC News Tonight and one of the leading news personalities in the country, may have concocted or significantly embellished his own status as the survivor of an RPG attack on a helicopter on which he was being transported during the early stages of the Iraq War. From the political left to political right the condemnatory commentaries are now pouring in and the media is roiling with indignation. The soft spoken anchor whose calm demeanor and subtle balance once cast him as a deeply trusted voice, is now being targeted in a manner that most of us would have considered highly unlikely even a week ago.
Now that Williams has taken a leave of absence and has apologized, with a rather shaky explanation which itself is the subject of skeptical analysis, it is occasion for us to look at why this urbane and abundantly successful journalist, who had reached the pinnacle of his career would have needed to embellish or fabricate anything? Was he not assured of an enticingly remunerative position as NBC’s star journalist for the rest of his working life – much like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite before him? Perhaps if he just kept his emotional distance from stories and continued to present the news in his equivocal, relaxed manner, everything would have been fine, right ?
The answer has as much to do with the nature and development of journalism over the past 50 years as it does with Williams’ personal foibles. The change in reporting ushered in with the advent of the New Journalism movement, wherein such writers as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese and Joan Didion used fictional techniques to render highly stylized reportage changed the face and tenor of reporting. Often these 60s wunderkinds would place themselves into the story so that readers could see developments through their focused perspective.
Journalism thus grew far more personal in the modern age and the journalist, far from being a mere cipher for facts reported, became a personality whose opinion mattered. War reporting, a dangerous avocation at the best of times, became a special province of the adventurer/ reporter typified by such leading characters as the Australian Peter Arnett, the Vietnam era reporter Michael Herr and the 1990s Bosnian correspondent Peter Maas. As the concept of the embedded reporter gained currency so did the idea of the reporter as celebrity so that today such figures as Anderson Cooper, Geraldo Rivera and Richard Quest have become larger than life characters with huge followings and whose personalities often overshadow the stories upon which they are reporting.
The problem with the shift in focus to the reporter himself was that reporters began to grow an overdeveloped sense of their own importance, seeing themselves not just as the necessary chroniclers of the story but as essential to its telling, as if the facts could not really have an independent existence outside of their involvement.
It is little wonder then that Williams, not yet anointed the successor to Tom Brokaw, looked to the Iraq War for his own baptism of fire, something which might bring him within striking distance of his derring-do predecessors. Inventing a story which had him deeply involved in the ground action in Iraq was a way for him to pay his dues without having to undertake the risks of injury or possibly death in the field.
Brian Williams isn’t the first and won’t be the last of our reporters to lay claim to heroics he never performed . Should he then resign or be forced from his job? There answer is at best equivocal. After all, he did commit the cardinal journalistic sin of fabricating a story and refurbishing fact – although this perhaps pales when compared to the fictions his fellow journalistic transgressors have concocted without suffering any consequences whatsoever. So on this ground alone there might well be room for his contrition and rehabilitation.
Williams’ far graver sin is the liberal bias he allows to color his reporting and commentary which, given across in his appealing non-partisan manner, can be entirely deceiving. It is this skewed perspective, more than any one thing, which has driven viewers from the older, more established networks and in to the arms of such conservative upstarts as Fox and One America. Sickened by their pomposity and sense of entitlement, viewers have also fled traditional news services altogether for the more instant news offerings which can be obtained on the Internet via Facebook or Twitter.
The media has generally proven itself to be unforgiving when one of its own reveals the inner chauvinism and machismo which undergirds their profession and it has already turned on Williams, much like the flock of blackbirds did to a bird painted by its human captor in Jerzy Kosinki’s 1964 novel The Painted Bird. If he does fall his ruin may well be offered as a sacrifice by the media of one of its own as penance for its overall sins of hubris. But this may ultimately be the wrong sacrifice at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.