Brian Williams: Mythology, memory and ego

NBC News’ chief anchor has lied about a story he reported on and jeopardised the trust people give to journalists.

Brian Williams
Williams was trusted with someone's story, and stole it. [File: AP]

Every once in a while a term surfaces in a news story that leaves us wanting.

The term “misremembered” is one of them. That is how NBC’s chief anchor, Brian Williams, explained his shifting story about his experiences in Iraq. He issued an apology, for “misremembering”.

What, as the kids like to say these days, does that even mean?

It means he lied.

The same way Hillary Clinton, who was running for president at the time, lied about landing in Bosnia in 1996, “dodging sniper fire”, when the video shows her stepping off the aircraft and shaking the hands of dignitaries.

Clinton said she “misspoke”. Williams said he “misremembered”. Both of them lied. Both felt the need to aggrandise their respective experiences.

And then both of them lied again, by refusing to acknowledge their brazen dishonesty, and invoking the euphemism defence.

I am not in the business of comparing lies; grading them on their respective merits.

Perhaps because I am a journalist with fewer illusions about politicians than I have about my own kind, I find the Williams lie to be the more egregious of the two.

A journalist’s privilege

When I was just getting started in this field, a wise man taught me about the greatest privilege we have as journalists.

It’s not that we sometimes get to witness history, or that we get to interview a “Mandela”, now and then.

The privilege that trumps all others is that people trust us with their stories.

Usually, those people don’t know us from Adam.

They just know that we are journalists. And that is enough for them to tell their stories, often deeply personal, and trust us with them.

It can be a farmer whose barn has burned down and needs help; someone who has been victimised by a person in a position of power and wants that story told, so that justice can be done; a parent whose child has been bullied at school and needs protection.

Or it can be a US soldier, on a mission in Iraq, whose helicopter gets hit by ground fire and is forced to land.

When Brian Williams and his crew boarded their helicopter in 2003, the flight crew and soldiers on board would have taken them on trust. And not just in a “We all have jobs to do, but if things get hairy, we have to take care of each other” kind of way.

They trusted NBC with their story.

Betrayal and theft

Brian Williams betrayed that trust. He stole their story and made it his own.

Just consider that for a moment. Here’s an anchor person, making millions annually, dropping into a war zone and stealing from people who stand to earn $40,000 a year, if they survive.

And, having pilfered part of someone else’s past for his own purposes, Williams then tells the story to David Letterman.

And when Letterman reacts precisely the way Williams would have hoped …

“I have to treat you now with renewed respect,” his host says. “That’s a tremendous story.”

… Williams lies again, by playing the false modesty card on a story designed to grant him the respect, the combat bona fides he clearly craved.

“Oh, don’t think any differently of me,” he protested to Letterman.

“I was an accidental tourist, covering a conflict, trying to get close to these fantastic volunteers we have in the war. We got hit and I came away with just more respect for these men and women.”

Lyin’ Brian 

Now we’re hearing the clamour, in media both social and mainstream, for Williams’ resignation or his firing.

Judging from the silence emanating from the top of NBC News, and the office of its president, Deborah Turness, their fire-fighting strategy is to let the scandal burn itself out and hope their golden boy emerges on his feet, retaining at least some of his sheen.

And before this story is done, we’ll be hearing a lot of arguments about Williams, invoking terms such as character, credibility and viability.

He already has a new nickname: Lyin’ Brian.

But that’s not the worst of it for me; the fact that he lied and then lacked the courage to admit to the lie, through that ridiculous “misremembering” defence [a nauseating tactic unworthy of a politician, let alone a journalist who is supposed to keep politicians honest].

It’s not that Brian Williams is a liar. It’s that he is a thief.

He was accorded a position of privilege. He was trusted with someone’s story.

He stole it and, in the process, diminished every one of us who does this for a living.

Richard Gizbert is the Host/Creator of The Listening Post, a media-watch programme on Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera America. He has covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda and Somalia, where he did nothing remotely heroic.

Source: Al Jazeera