Brian Williams & The Temptation To Make Stuff Up

In the week since NBC anchor, Brian Williams made an on-air apology for falsely claiming that the helicopter he was in came under enemy fire in a case of what he called, “mis-remembering,” his reputation has plummeted from that of a respected journalist to becoming the subject of widespread lampooning across social media. At face value, it may appear to some that Williams has fallen victim to unfair criticism from a general public that loves to see media personalities fall from grace. Without a doubt, that’s part of it, but from a journalistic perspective, there’s something much more troubling at play.

At the heart of journalism is the story itself. A journalist, in turn, needs to be a good storyteller irrespective of whether that story is told on television, radio, the Internet or in print. A good journalist develops a skill at telling the story in a way that captivates the interest of the recipient. Essentially, a news anchor or field reporter best serves the public if he or she is successful at getting them to actually care about the story. If they care, they listen. If they listen, they are informed. Getting them to care is a bigger challenge than it may seem. To reach this goal, journalists often face the temptation to embellish the story a little in order to create drama, empathy or credibility. When they give in to this temptation, they sacrifice the most important element to the story they tell: the truth.

It happens at all levels of the craft. At the beginning of their careers, most journalists find themselves working at small time media outlets writing obituaries or community board meetings at the a coffee shop or public hall. These stories are far from interesting, but as a matter of public record, they are newsworthy nonetheless. Reporters begin to develop their story telling skills early on in order to make these basic news items interesting. This is why, in an obituary, the deceased is often called, “a loving father, or “beloved husband.” Remove these elements, and he’s nothing more than just some dead guy. Add elements to the obituary, and the writer risks deviating from the truth and sacrificing his or her journalistic integrity.

While the temptation is always there, the repercussions are greater the bigger or more important the story is. A news anchor with a national audience gains that position supposedly having developed his or her journalistic skills in such a way that the story is not only well told, but that the honesty of the story remains in tact. The public rightfully expects a national news anchor for a major network to be trustworthy. His apology notwithstanding, Brian Williams broke that element of trust even though he ultimately acknowledged the error of his ways.

To his credit, in addition to his apology, Brian Williams has removed himself from the anchor’s desk for a brief hiatus recognizing the damage his “mis-remembering” has done both to his reputation and to NBC. Will a few days out of the spotlight make everything all better? Hardly. The gravity of his journalistic blunder cannot be overlooked any more than can the disappointment felt by his fellow journalists who continually fight the temptation to which this highly respected network anchor succumbed. Will he survive this episode in his career? Perhaps, but only if it inspires him to approach his craft with a greater level of integrity than he has in the past.


By Jack Raplee

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