This is sage advice I first heard in, of all places, a screening room at a television production lot. A producer, catching one of his underlings in a lie, turned to him in front of the rest of us and coldly and cuttingly told him that the next time he should try “telling the truth … it’s easier to remember.” The producer then calmly and resolutely walked out of the screening room. Message delivered.
The now suspended NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams would have profited from being in that screening room and it is advice we could all take to heart. Though the iconic show of the 1990’s, “The X-Files” always told us “The Truth is Out There,” the Brian Williams fiasco reminds us that, despite having so many varied television news options to choose from, we can still be at a loss for dependable and objective reporting.
Like all untruths, the one that got Brian Williams suspended and put his career in distinct jeopardy had more than one level to it. As Mark Twain noted about lies, outright lies and statistics, the tangled web that Brian Williams wove for himself started out on a premise of truth.
He was a reporter. He was in a country during a hot war, and he was in a helicopter. After that, things get fuzzy. Actually, the problem for Brian Williams was that things got way too clear as he “misremembered” a rather heroic event, putting himself in the middle of a war and casting himself as the calm, cool, collected and crusading reporter.
We know the real story was not quite the nail biter he described, and now he is paying dearly for it. Because television is so populated with so many news shows vying for the same “gotcha” moment in any given story, the feeding frenzy was much like what happens when sharks attack a wounded mackerel en masse. If by chance one of their fellow sharks starts to bleed, all bets are off and the other sharks turn on one of their own.
The ridicule and disdain heaped upon Brian Williams has been relentless and has spilled predictably over to television news’ archnemesis, the Internet. There have been photo shopped memes of Brian Williams with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, in the lethal limousine next to JFK in Dallas, and dressed as an astronaut, among many others.
It really is doubtful he can reclaim his once eminent (deserved or not) position as the anchor of one of the big three nightly news broadcasts. And frankly, the piling on is excessive.
Brian Williams isn’t the first and won’t be the last public person who puts his foot in his mouth on television for all to see. Politicians do it on a regular basis with fabricated personal histories aimed to give them a more sensitive, heroic or compassionate narrative.
Maybe it’s because the American public is so conditioned to believe a politician is going to have a rather elastic relationship with the truth that they have become a protected class — allowed to continue their public lives even when their particular “misrememberings” are exposed.
Not so for television news personnel. Like Brian Williams, Dan Rather was once on the top of the network news mountain, having carved out a long and distinguished career at CBS. But when he attached himself to a story about President George W. Bush’s military career that was very unflattering, the accolades of his colleagues only lasted as long as it took an industrious and faceless newshound on the Internet to discover that the documents representing the smoking gun of the report could not have originated on an early 1970s typewriter, but were the result of a forgery typed in a font only found within a certain computer word processing program.
Dan Rather took the hit and his role as America’s Newsman was finished.
Before Brian Williams, NBC News also got a black eye when one of its magazine shows doctored the results of a report about the dangers of certain American-made pickup truck that purportedly had a penchant for exploding after certain types of collisions. The report had one of these pickups re-enact an accident and sure enough, the trucks exploded.
Only problem was, it was discovered that NBC had rigged the truck with small explosives to help things along. Just as we need to be careful consumers of the entertainment we ingest from television, so too must we be diligent and intelligent when it comes to news.
Whether or not Brian Williams will be able to resuscitate his career remains to be seen. And in this brave new world of television, where entertainment and news are becoming more and more entangled (see: The Daily Show), it is not beyond the imagination to see him return with a half hour comedy show or a reality show about a once respected news anchor from a big network now working the weekend weather at an affiliate in Tacoma.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said “In America, there are no second acts.” Too many once scandalized and written off public figures have made a return to the limelight. Maybe Brian Williams will be numbered among them. Whether the truth makes a similar comeback remains to be seen.