Fire Brian Williams (Or Don’t)

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It’s been a rough couple of weeks for NBC News anchor Brian Williams. First he had to weather the indignity of his daughter getting her salad tossed on HBO, and now he faces legitimate questions about his truthfulness and integrity.

It seems that Mr. Williams, in paying tribute to a war veteran he met in 2003 during the Iraq invasion, embellished the story of their shared adventure, claiming that their helicopter had been shot down when in fact no such thing happened; Williams’ helicopter was trailing one hit by RPG fire and landed without incident an hour after the stricken aircraft made an emergency landing.

Veterans quickly took issue with Williams’ story, made worse by the fact that Williams has been telling this story for years, most recently on Late Show with David Letterman two years ago. Williams offered an apology from the anchor chair a couple of nights ago, saying he had somehow accidentally “conflated” the two helicopters (the one that was hit and the one he was riding in) and insisted it was an innocent mistake.

I suppose that is possible. Stories get embellished over time, as people tell them and retell them. For years I told a story of the night I met Todd Rundgren at Burning Man, how I’d woken in the middle of the night, found my camp completely dark, and gone walking by myself and found myself sitting at a bar under a 40-foot sunflower ordering a Jack on the rocks from a wizard, a true star, when my wife interrupted me: “You weren’t alone, I was with you.”

“You were?”

“Yes.”

“But I thought it was the night I woke up and no one was around so I headed out alone.”

“That was a different night.”

So memories are fallible, though it seems obvious that there’s a big difference between a memory of the exact circumstances of meeting a fallen rock star and a memory of your helicopter being hit by a grenade. It’s almost like being in the waiting room while your cousin delivers a baby, and then gradually coming to believe that YOU delivered the baby. I can’t see how someone would make that mistake, but I suppose it’s possible.

Whether you believe his explanation or not, Williams is taking heavy fire for this, as it obviously calls his credibility into question, even though he has not delivered this tall tale in his capacity as a news anchor; when he reported these events at the time they occurred, none of these exaggerations were part of the story.

But that doesn’t matter to the people calling for his head, who insist that he is no longer a reliable source of information. People on the right are indignantly insisting that if one of “their” news personalities was caught in a lie like this that the “Liberal media” would be howling with outrage, and they definitely have a point there. That positioning points out the fact that Republicans seem to see Brian Williams as having a liberal bias, which I was previously not aware of.

I have no opinion on whether Brian Williams has a liberal bias, because I can’t remember the last time I watched him deliver the news. For that matter, I can’t remember the last time I saw any 6pm network news telecast. Does anyone watch network news any more? If you are reading this and you have seen a network newscast in the last six months I would very much like to hear from you. Is it possible that I haven’t watched a network news anchor since 9/11? Because that’s what it feels like: I had Peter Jennings, haggard and in rolled-up shirtsleeves, on my TV from September 11 until September 18, 2001 or so; after that I really don’t think I’ve watched any network news at all. I never saw Katie Couric as an anchor, or Diane Sawyer; I don’t even know who ABC or CBS’ anchors are these days. That’s not to say I don’t consume news, because I do, probably more than the average bear. It’s just that inthe 21st century the news has moved online and so have I.

Moreover, it seems to me that “credibility” in a news anchor is kind of an outdated notion at this point. Williams’ ratings, and network news ratings in general, have been steadily falling for several years. People don’t form their opinions according to the facts anymore; they go looking for facts that fit their opinions. If Brian Williams goes on the air and reports that Obamacare has brought the ranks of the uninsured down, boosted the economy, and cured cancer, nobody who regularly watches Fox News is going to believe that, but people who like Rachel Maddow will.

The simple fact that Brian Williams works for NBC is enough to disqualify anything he says with a certain segment of the population, and even if they fire him tomorrow, whoever replaces him is going to be every bit as distrusted no matter what comes out of his mouth.

So they can fire him or not fire him; I don’t think it’ll make any difference one way or the other in terms of the public’s trust of news personalities. If Rush Limbaugh still has listeners after years of railing against drug addicts and then being outed as one himself, I don’t see how this little fish story is going to sway any of Brian Williams’ most devoted viewers (assuming there are any). And if they do fire him, he can always fall back on his rap career.

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