What Brian Williams’s Chopper Whopper Says About Modern News Media
Embarrassing and infuriating: Brian Williams’s ‘misstatements’ reveal much about America’s media environment.
By now, it may be time to paraphrase a famous remark by Rep. Mo Udall at an endless political dinner and conclude that, “Everything that can be said about Brian Williams has been said; it’s just that not everyone has said it yet.”
But maybe not.
Consider what follows as a few footnotes to the Big Stuff—“Why did he do it?” “How bad were his misdeeds?” “Are there others?” “Can he survive?” In the reactions to the story of the Flak Attack That Wasn’t lie some telling realities about today’s media world.
There Is No “Wall of Silence.” My Twitter feed was—and still is—filed with assertions that the mainstream media will circle the wagons to protect one of their own. This is precisely what has not happened. The New York Times has published accounts that cast serious doubt not only on Williams’s later storytelling, but also on the original NBC story 12 years ago. Maureen Dowd’s Sunday column is brutal, reporting concerns within NBC News of Williams’s tendency to aggrandize himself. In The New Yorker, satirist Andy Borowitz wrote an acidic “diary” painting the NBC anchor as the embodiment of upper-class privilege. The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and The Daily Beast—media outlets that would never be confused with right-wing zealotry—have been highly critical of Williams. Only a few familiar faces—Dan Rather and TIME’s Joe Klein—have spoken up in Williams’s defense.
You can argue that these outlets been “forced” into this because the digital world makes it impossible to ignore the depredations of traditional media. Or you can note that the media themselves have come to accept that they need to be subject to the same critical gaze as other institutions. Thus the birth of ombudsmen and public accountability—from The New York Times and Jayson Blair’s tall tales, to the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke and her eight-year-old addict, to CBS and the George W. Bush National Guard story, to CNN’s Tailwind scandal and beyond. Whatever the reason, the notion that the “mainstream media” has rushed to protect Brian Williams is laughable.
Williams Made Himself A Perfect Target. There’s no more attractive story than one suggesting that an important or powerful figure is a hypocrite. It’s the war hawk urging the dispatch of young men and women into harm’s way, but whose draft deferments or sketchy medical condition exempted him from the draft. It’s the liberal voting to bus children to school while sending her kids to private academies. It’s the tribune of moral virtue paying for abortions for the staff assistant he knocked up. It’s the environmentalists flying to a climate change rally in a private jet.
Brian Williams is, in this sense, a perfect fit. His inaccurate, or misleading, or deeply dishonest account of what happened in Iraq seems to put the lie to a career that has featured him in the midst of one danger or another. To be clear on this point: Williams in fact has been in many places where natural disasters or violence have indeed involved risk. (I write as someone who, in more than 30 years of network TV reporting, found himself in physical danger exactly once, in South Africa, for a period of perhaps 15 minutes.)
But by steadily exaggerating the perils of his helicopter journey, he’s permitted critics to suggest that it was all an act; that he is not who he wanted us to think he is. He’s also opened the door to those who scoff at the danger journalists face. On Thursday, Rush Limbaugh scornfully referred to journalists who “put on a trench coat and stand in a street in Beirut.” This is a slanderous smear on the critically wounded Bob Woodruff and Kimberly Dozier, on Mike Kelly and David Bloom (who died in Iraq), on James Foley and other journalists beheaded by ISIS, on the 61 journalists killed in 2014. It is, however, a slander that will resonate, and it will resonate because Williams was apparently unwilling to let his record, unvarnished, speak for itself.
Have You Looked In the Mirror Lately? Brian Williams is one of many in the mainstream or traditional or legacy media who have warned about the difficulty of judging the credibility of “new media.” When a story is coming from somewhere “out there,” in the digital universe, with no imprimatur, where’s the institutional backup, where are the researchers, the editors, the fact-checkers, the accountability?
Well, in this case, it was the toolbox of the “new media” that exposed the holes (or lack of them) in the helicopter story. Facebook gave a member of the U.S. military the forum on which to challenge Williams (“Sorry, dude, I don't remember you being on my aircraft”). Moreover, there are a lot of questions still to be answered about why the NBC staffers who were with Williams never raised their voices to say: “Um Brian, about that story…”
As for what happens next: I don’t know what NBC—or outside investigators—are going to find. I don’t know if it makes sense (assuming no other transgressions) for Williams to sit down with a smart, tough but fair inquisitor—Megyn Kelly? Jon Stewart? The scheduled appearance on Letterman Thursday?—and answer whatever questions are thrown his way. It probably makes sense for Williams to shelve his considerable comedic gifts and stay away from Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live.
I do know that there’s one idea that struck me as eminently on point. It comes from Matt Dowd, the recovering political operative and ABC News analyst, who tweeted: “Maybe [the] news media can learn from this episode and start being a little more compassionate when others mess up.”
Matt, if you can figure out a way to make this happen, head for the beach where King Canute is standing.