Blood in the Water, Sharks Circling … and Brian Williams
Try to imagine that Letterman or Kimmel or Fallon asks me to be a guest on their late night show and the first question is: “What did you do before you went into journalism, Bernie?” Now imagine that I say: “Well, Dave (or Jimmy) I played centerfield for the New York Yankees; I hit 536 home runs before I hung up the spikes and hit just under .300 during my 18 year career.”
Those are Mickey Mantle’s numbers. So that would make me one of two things: delusional – which is a mental disorder – or a liar.
Those are pretty much the two options for Brian Williams regarding his oft-told story that while covering the war in Iraq in 2003, the military helicopter he was in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
Wow. That’s dramatic. It takes a courageous newsman, like Brian Williams, to go into a war zone and almost die because the chopper he was on got hit by a rocket.
Except, as we now know, it never happened. And Williams admits it never happened, and has apologized – an apology that came 12 years after the supposed rocket attack and only after soldiers who were there had had enough (Williams had just told the fake story again) and came forward to say he made the whole thing up.
Brian Williams was in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003, but it was never hit by a rocket. The chopper he was on showed up at the scene of the rocket attack about an hour later. Williams says he doesn’t know how he “conflated” the facts and came up with his make-believe story. So what’s going on?
I guess it’s possible that Brian Williams is nuts, that he’s delusional. But I don’t think so. I’m going with liar.
But I don’t think he was your everyday run-of-the-mill liar. I think he is in a special category: The Celebrity Liar category.
Celebrities go on late night talk shows all the time and tell harmless little stories that aren’t true. (Letterman’s show, by the way, was one of the places Williams told his story about how his helicopter was hit by an RPG.) The celebrities – and the late night hosts and producers – understand that the truth isn’t always entertaining. A lot of times it isn’t even interesting. And since being uninteresting is the biggest sin one can commit in the world of show business, celebrities embellish or flat out lie in order to do what they’re supposed to do in the world of entertainment: entertain!
Big deal. Who cares if some ditzy celebrity says she was walking her dog on Rodeo Drive when a guy dressed up like a giant banana tried to run away with the pooch but was stopped by Sylvester Stallone who just happened to be strolling by at the time? (I just made that up, in case you’re wondering.) It’s only a ditzy celebrity telling a dumb story meant to be … entertaining.
But when the celebrity is also a journalist – and not just a regular reporter but also the anchorman of the NBC Nightly News – making up stuff about things that never happened -- in a war zone no less -- may be entertaining but it’s also unacceptable. It crosses a very bright line. If he’ll make up a story about being hit by a rocket, the viewer has a right to wonder, what else will he make up?
But when I talked to Bill O’Reilly about this I predicted the story would go nowhere. We live in a culture where outrage is hard to come by. When the Russians, or their thug surrogates, shot down a civilian jetliner over Ukraine … the story faded fast. The other day, the monsters from ISIS burned that Jordanian POW alive … and that story is already old news. That’s why I told O’Reilly that the Brian Williams story would go away “in the blink of an eye.”
I was wrong.
The next morning something happened I didn’t foresee. The New York Times ran the Brian Williams story on page one. And since the Times is the Bible in the world of journalism – the place "lesser" journalists go to get their wisdom, where they go to find out what is and what isn’t newsworthy – this could be the beginning of bad times for Mr. Williams.
There’s also a report in the New York Post that the man Williams replaced in the anchor chair, Tom Brokaw, says it’s time for Williams to go. “Brokaw wants Williams’ head on a platter,” according to a source at NBC that the Post quoted. “He [Brokaw] is making a lot of noise at NBC that a lesser journalist or producer would have been immediately fired or suspended for a false report” the source reportedly told the Post. (According to the New York Times, Brokaw refuted that report, saying in an email that he "neither suggested nor demanded Brian be fired." But Brokaw did not offer up an endorsement of Williams, telling the Times "His future is up to Brian [Comcast CEO Brian Roberts -- parent company of NBC] and the executives of NBC News.")
And then a report from New Orleans has surfaced, about an interview Williams gave in 2006 about covering Hurricane Katrina a year earlier in New Orleans. Here’s what Williams said: “When you look out of your hotel window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country …”
But the New Orleans Advocate is now reporting this: “But the French Quarter, the original high ground of New Orleans, was not impacted by the floodwaters that overwhelmed the vast majority of the city.”
Blood is in the water. The sharks are circling. And Williams decided he needed to take a temporary leave from his anchor chair because instead of reporting the news, he had become the news. Will he return? Is he finished? As they say on television: Stay tuned.