Brian Williams should retreat from the spotlight—for now

It all started with Richard Harding Davis, the 1890s to World War I Hearst war correspondent-novelist-playwright so famous that it was said that wars were not allowed to start until he arrived—so rich (earning as much as $3,000 a month), handsome and well dressed, even for battle, that he represented what it was to be a man for the men and boys of his day. His spirit was still around during World War II when the Murrow’s Boys, the team recruited by CBS’s Edward R. Murrow, who joined so many bombing raids over Germany that it’s a miracle he wasn’t shot down, set the standard for war reporting that continued into the glory days of CBS-TV news under Walter Cronkite, America’s most trusted man, whose commentary from Vietnam helped convince even Lyndon Johnson that the war was failing. From then on young, ambitious journalists understood that to get ahead one had best risk his or her life as a war correspondent.

The trouble is that in a modern multimedia culture where both print journalism and network news are on the ropes, intelligence, ingenuity, courage and integrity are not enough. In some media, you have to sell yourself, become a personality, accumulate a million followers on Twitter, show up on late-night comedy-talk shows and tell funny and/or exciting stories that you hope viewers will remember you by.

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We will remember, for example, that Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who was flying behind a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, now remembers his own helicopter as being hit. How he will be remembered—as a confused narrator or a liar—is not yet clear. He stepped back from the camera while NBC investigated his whole career. Is there a pattern of exaggeration or distortion that renders him no longer trustworthy in a profession where accuracy and integrity are the foundation, or has the culture of multitasking rattled his head, as if a completed jigsaw puzzle had been dropped and shattered?

NBC has suspended him without pay for six months, but has not answered major questions.

He can take some comfort in Tuesday morning’s New York Times (2/10/15), “False Memory vs. Bald Faced Lie.” Memories don’t live in the brain as unified stories, but as fragments of information stored in different corners. When we recall them, any number of events—news stories, films, songs, dreams and conversations—may recreate a new version. On the other hand, the NBC investigation may detect a pattern—the helicopter tale, retold many times and embellished; witnessing a suicide and a body floating under his window during Katrina; whining about having to sleep on a mattress in a stairway; being robbed at gunpoint as a boy while selling Christmas trees in Red Bank, N.J.

Maureen Dowd (New York Times, 2/ 8/15) reports that NBC executives were warned a year ago that Williams was “constantly inflating his biography.” But she is less concerned about Williams’s untruths than the fact that “the Internet has already taken down a much larger target: the long-ingrained automatic impulse to turn on the TV when news happens.” TV news, she reports, has not had moral authority since Walter Cronkite told the truth about Vietnam. I must confess that, though I watched CBS-TV during the Cronkite/Eric Sevareid years as if it was a religious experience, today I listen to Public Radio in the morning and midnight, when I skip between MSNBC and CNN, then on Fridays watch the PBS Newshour and Washington Week in Review. Finally I read the Times and Washington Post every day and the Guardian every week. But I still dream of a day when CBS will regain its reputation for serious reporting.

Meanwhile, accepting the suspension, how should he invest his energies? He and NBC should interpret the suspension as if TV news really believed that nothing is more important than its integrity—not profits, or medical or automobile advertising or the celebrity status of its “stars.” In one sense his offense was not delivering false news in a broadcast, he hurt no one but himself. But, having accepted the extracurricular job as a socialite-PR rep, basking in the bright lights for 10 million dollars a year, he personified NBC and its rating have gone down.

He should seize these months as an opportunity and go to a monastery or a cabin on Walden Pond and think, with professional consultation, about what it is that makes him brag and bluff and abuse his memory. Then come back to work. Eric Sevareid once advised the rising Dan Rather to take a year off, enroll in a university and read the great books of Western literature. Maybe if Rather had done that he wouldn’t have committed the slip in research that undid him. Brian Williams, at 55, is still young enough to grow. 

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Joseph McAuley
3 years 10 months ago

It is unfortunate that this had to happen and to have Brian Williams' career hang in the balance. It reminds me of what Abraham Lincoln once said: "No man has good enough memory to be a successful liar." This is the problem with television news these days--for years it has been conflated with the entertainment division. News reporters become news anchors become celebrities and/or entertainers. When that happens, the "news" aspect gets lost.  Growing up, I remember watching news anchors like John Chancellor, David Brinkley, Roger Mudd, Tom Brokaw, Frank Reynolds, Peter Jennings, et. al. (along with "Uncle Walter"!) who were serious about their craft. That is not to say that there are no reporters today who aren't serious about their job; it's just that news programs have become too "show-bizzy." In addition to that, when people no longer want to really study and read about the world around them, then the information that news programs (and newspapers, too) provide suffer and decline as a result. 

Paul Ferris
3 years 10 months ago
I think Al-Jazeera America reports the news in more depth. Too bad it has Arabic connotations for people.
Thomas Farrelly
3 years 10 months ago
You are certainly right about Al Jazeera. Some of the anchors betray biases at times, but overall it is the best news channel by far.
Peter Connor
3 years 10 months ago
I don't think it's a matter of whether Brian Williams can come to grips with who he is, professionally. It won't matter to the critics and cynics who won't let him re-create himself. I wrote in a NYT Williams article comments section that some nasty news outlet will post a sticky note on the calendar, six months hence, and will re-visit the whole ordeal once again, bringing discredit to Mr. Williams and NBC. This could be a time of enlightenment for Mr. Williams. As suggested by Fr. Schroth, Brian might go to a "Walden," (maybe a 30 day Jesuit retreat?) where he can sort things out, so that when he emerges, he will be more able to live with himself. The rest will take care of itself.
John Walton
3 years 10 months ago
I would advise Williams to start smoking Camels and drinking rye, don't shave for a couple of days and work on your pinochle skills. Will have much the same palliative effect as a weekend at Walden Pond and he will feel better for it.
Paul Ferris
3 years 10 months ago
Hillary Clinton made a similar exaggeration, embellishment, lie, and she survived. How come ?
Thomas Farrelly
3 years 10 months ago
Ray, it is disappointing to see that you expose yourself only to media of a Liberal Democratic point of view, which presumably support the opinions you already have. Ever hear of the Economist or the Wall St. Journal? And try Al Jazeera, by far the best TV news channel.
KATHERIN MARSH
3 years 9 months ago
Our national news anchors must be scrupulous with the truth when relating events. Is Brian William's confusion about the truth, a one time occurrence? I doubt it. When one has spent years being disciplined and fastidious about truth, the parts of the brain that contain it, light up. When one has spent years manipulating the truth and suppressing it, no one is enlightened. I believe that we humans have an inborn soul for truth tellers. And reward it by listening to it massively. Competition for listeners and viewers exists because we consumers are listening and looking for it. The national news has not been able to produce an audience winner. Since NBC brass has suspended Brian Williams, I hope they are telling us, they understand this.
John Barbieri
3 years 9 months ago
Brian Williams appears to have lost his integrity. If he comes back, what advertiser would want its name associated with him?
Tom Fields
3 years 9 months ago
Yes, he could go to a monastery. He could contribute his ill-gotten millions to charity. He could convince his daughter, Allison, to get off the X-rated TV show, "GIRLS".He could seek psychiatric treatment.
Tom Fields
3 years 9 months ago
Yes, he could go to a monastery. He could contribute his ill-gotten millions to charity. He could convince his daughter, Allison, to get off the X-rated TV show, "GIRLS".He could seek psychiatric treatment.

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