Social media has been rife with outrage at the exposure of Brian Williams’ misrepresentation and exaggeration of stories of his experience as a journalist. His failure is the result of a larger change occurring in the news industry: a paradigm shift from “old media” professional journalists to “new media,” who are more and more often being called upon to be entertaining as well as accurate.
Williams lied about events that occurred during his time covering the Iraq War in 2003. Williams recently took a veteran who had guarded him on a mission in Iraq to a New York Rangers game, reporting on air how the helicopter he was flying in took fire from a rocket-propelled grenade. A different veteran of the same mission then posted to Facebook: “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened.”
The truth is, the helicopter in front of Williams’ was hit with an RPG––his aircraft was not. Intentionally or not, Williams has repeatedly told an outright lie about his experiences in Iraq for 12 years.
This is not the first time Williams’ honesty has been called into question. Williams recalled seeing a corpse float by his hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans while reporting on Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Not only did health officials report that there hadn’t been any unaccounted-for deaths in the French Quarter, but they also stated that area of the city was largely dry.
News organizations like NBC News used to be sacred––for the most part, journalists reported only facts that could be supported. Those who did not were usually fired. Higher standards for journalistic integrity used to exist.
Walter Cronkite of CBS News risked his career to tell America it was losing the Vietnam War. Now, we have news anchors like Williams who devote a lot of time to making guest appearances on shows such as “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” and we have reputable news organizations like Rolling Stone publishing high-profile articles without adequately fact-checking them first.
These organizations do not deserve all of the blame for these failures, however much they might disgust those in more principled professions. The rise of social media is making news organizations like these less and less essential. Instead of turning on the television when something important is happening, people are more likely to turn to Twitter or Facebook.
This shift in media usage puts pressure on news organizations. To justify themselves, these companies increasingly have to rely on their brand. The question remains, however, if they are trying to sell the credibility of their reporting, or rather, the personality of their news anchor.We need to make the distinction in our society between professionals and “personalities.”
The main failure of this situation is that Williams was given both jobs to do when they are utterly incompatible. Williams isn’t Indiana Jones—he should know that, and we as an audience should not expect him to be. We should want and expect the news we consume to be relevant and factual. A well-informed electorate is the very foundation of democracy, and professionalism in news gathering and reporting is integral to that pursuit.
As of this week, Williams is suspended from NBC News for six months without pay. The irony lies in the fact that NBC News can’t outright fire Williams; they wouldn’t have the resources to continue doing the spotty job they’re already doing without him.
By lying about his experiences in Iraq, Williams violated his mandate as a reporter to broadcast only information that is factual and beyond reproach.