Brian Williams draws my sympathy. The NBC anchorman sits in the awkward position of having to be an easy-to-look-at newsreader and a model of absolute trust. He never graduated from college, though he did a stint at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. But, like other newsmakers, is supposed to opine like a grand scholar. He is expected to captivate us every night but relies on producers and researchers to do his work. He has to keep a high profile and be a man of derring-do, which led him to an accusation that he falsely claimed to have dodged terrorist fire in the Middle East. If he did get caught up in image-enhancing, he should not have done so, but there is a lot of blame to go around.
How about blaming the network that wanted him in the dangerous situation to boost ratings? How about the military seeking news coverage by putting soldiers into P.R. work and facilitating it by escorting Williams over the perilous landscape? How about the public that wants more than just the facts?
A news executive once stated that the worst day in the news business was when CBS made a profit with “60 Minutes,” the Sunday magazine show that moved the news business to show business. The need to showboat in the news biz continues to grow and does not bode well.
In some jobs one has to be "Caesar’s wife"—above reproach—and it may be Williams's misfortune to be in one of them. Some viewers make the mistake of dehumanizing persons who become media personalities and exaggerating both their faults and virtues. They are usually seen as heroes or villains. Never are they viewed as ordinary people capable of both venial and mortal sins whose virtues should not be entirely forgotten when their vices are exposed. Hopefully, a balance might still be achieved between criticism of Williams for this genuine faults and keeping in mind his genuine contributions. Also, a distinction should not be lost between exaggerating one's own experiences and failing to report accurately on matters of public concern. After all, what Williams did (or didn't do) in the war can't compare with the media's failure to raise important questions that may have affected the decision to go to war in the first place.
Brian Williams has much to say for himself. He was gutsy to even have gone to the war-torn Middle East. He is a generous colleague who has helped whomever he could. He got burned when he touched the third rail of media politics and the network competition, however.
Today media outlets need to give more attention to resources of news coverage than to the money-making ratings wars. There are lessons here. One hopes Brian Williams as whipping boy in this saga isn’t one of them.
Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church correspondent for America.