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.
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.