One of the most trusted names in broadcast news, Brian Williams, has been called out for stretching the truth about events he witnessed in his reporting, trading in his credibility for a good, although untruthful, story. Now many Americans are questioning why a beloved news anchor has been caught being untruthful.
While there is rampant debate about Williams and the future of the NBC Nightly News operation that he led, the answer is simple.
That’s what his audience wanted.
To begin it must be understood that news, like life, is extremely complicated, often a story has many layers, and sometimes those layers don’t play well together. The Williams story is exactly one of those complicated tales that consumers crave to understand, but it cannot be pegged into black and white, right or wrong. It is not that simple and it shouldn’t be.
Williams was the figure-head of a huge news operation, with viewers upwards of 8 million every day and to even suggest that he came into that position easily would be an understatement. His relentless pursuit of a story and his ability to tell that story well made him powerful and famous, but perhaps those abilities made it inevitable that he would at some point be dragged into a conversation about telling a story that wasn’t always 100 percent accurate.
That conversation is happening now, but with all the complexity of modern news Williams can’t be the only person at fault.
At the center of that conversation is a resounding note of blame for Williams, but instead of banishing him for his crimes, the more valuable action to be taken now is the evaluation of why he felt it was either necessary, or acceptable, to be less than honest with his viewers.
Williams began his broadcast career at a small station in Pittsburg, Kansas where after a 13 month stint he tried to move into larger markets — and failed. By his own admission his failure was due to his being “unexceptional,” but following a difficult road he toiled and struggled, finally gaining entry into the larger news stations where he sought to work.
If there were any real outside accountability his inaccuracies would have been made public long ago, in fact the incident that has caused his recent downfall was called out almost immediately after his initial reporting in 2003, and since that time the story he has told over the years has become more dramatic and interesting, but also fictitious.
That story, in Williams latest iteration, tells of being in a Chinook helicopter that was damaged by a rocket propelled grenade, subsequently forced into an emergency landing, that left him and the crew stuck north of the U.S. Iraq invasion force. Now in looking back, it has become clear that was not the only time Williams has severely stretched the truth of a story and in those times few have come to his defense.
While some are quick to give reasons why this may have happened, there should be little doubt he knew exactly what he was doing given his incredible authority. He was giving his audience what they wanted they from him, his ability to tell an exceptional story, and so the full blame shouldn’t be put on Williams shoulders alone.
It has been no secret that Williams has a penchant for embellishing the truth in order to tell engaging stories, and that is exactly why he became the most popular news anchor in the U.S., he knew how to tell a story and in telling those stories they continued to get more and more outrageous. Even as red flags were raised, questioning his recall of events, Americans kept watching — and believing — the man who had become the top newsman in the country.
His story telling ability, while a great strength, became his greatest weakness, because sometimes truth, and so news, just isn’t that interesting.
The few that have defended Williams, argue that over the years the stories he told were embellished through the re-tellings, by the apparatus that was the NBC Nightly News. While that may be the case, it was Williams that should be ultimately responsible to oversee the content of the program, ensuring his stories in any setting were always accurate. Williams should be the first and last person guarding his legacy and in his hubris to be at the top, he clearly lost sight of what was important (accurate news, even at the cost of viewers). Viewers should fault Williams for allowing the stories to become so egregious, but that is also where his culpability should end.
Keeping stories honest was his job, but in the internet era viewers have a role as well, and like Williams they failed to do their part.
When content becomes subordinate to the cult of personality, the system is rigged to fail. As the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and that clearly happened here. Now, even if Williams makes a comeback, following his 6 month unpaid suspension from NBC, it would be an exceptional challenge to win back the trust he lost. It is hard to make the case that his audience will be accepting of his return, even if the blame shifts off of him, but if his audience overlooked his shortcomings for so long, how is it they feel no responsibility, while in essence being accomplices to the lies?
More so, in an America where we have turned news anchors into entertainers, where infotainment is disguised news, how can an honest news man stay relevant, without appearing to be “unexceptional?”
News in America has become click-bait and cat pictures as Americans have lost respect for news, falling trap to the trend of news outlets that make having the largest possible audience, in terms of TV ratings or internet clicks their primary goal. In that market Americans have given news anchors the power to create whole narratives out of nuggets of news, truth be damned.
The good news is it is not all for naught, as there is a simple and effective recourse. If Americans were to stop watching personalities, stop clicking the noisiest pseudo-news websites, and stop reacting to the loud, annoying, entertainers that permeate cable news, instead choosing the best content, people like Brian Williams would not be profitable and replaced with honest, straight forward, news anchors.
It’s the peoples’ choice, but if everyone were to choose instead to partake in and only except accurate, well-researched news, in all its bland and unexciting glory, personalities like Williams will lose their power and the news will become relevant again.
At the end of the day this wasn’t the first time this has happened. There is a long history of journalism malpractice in America and with each incident viewers seem less surprised and even more tolerant. With the power of instant news on the web Americans can stop giving power to the entertainers we call news anchors and take back their right to accurate, honest news reporting.
The internet is full of all types of news media, video, print, and audio, giving everyone full access to almost any news they want, leaving it up to the consumer as to what they want the news to be. The power is all in the hands of the consumer. You and I let Williams tell his lies and collectively we ate it up, because it was compelling to watch and all of us have become complacent as to how we get our news. We can change it, if we want to, but if something doesn’t change soon I expect to see another story just like William’s in the not so distant future.
Want to start the change? Share this story with everyone you know that cares about the future of news by clicking the share icons below.