Last night at dinner with some colleagues, the topic of Brian Williams and his Paul Bunyan tale of being shot down in the Iraqi desert came up. Is he a liar? An embellisher? Or a victim of some sort of false memory syndrome?
No doubt, experts more qualified than me will be filling the airwaves talking about false memory retrieval. Heck, if you watched any kind of crime drama, you know that humans don’t always recall things in the way that they actually happened, and that memory can be suggestively shaped over time.
For me, the bigger issue is the line between news and entertainment. We’ve seen politicians exaggerate the level of danger they were in when visiting war zones before, but we expect our news anchors to be truthful purveyors of the facts.
Was it not dramatic enough to be on the front lines in a combat zone? Was there encouragement (overt or covert) to make the headline sexier? In an era where it isn’t enough to just report on a story, and talent is encouraged to become part of the story how can we preserve the integrity of news reporting? No one would have asked Walter Cronkite to get an on air colonoscopy. David Brinkley would not have tearfully recount the tale of spousal infidelity. (Frank Gifford at one point claimed not to remember his affair – so there’s that memory thing again).
Rumor has it that Tom Brokaw threatened to leave the network when Geraldo Rivera was given a show on CNBC, claiming that Geraldo’s style of journalism discredited the entire industry. Give Brokaw credit for consistency, because he is expressing his disapproval on this issue, too.
The rise in popularity of news anchors as entertainers, and the blurred line between information and entertainment puts those tasked with reporting the news in a difficult position where chasing ratings has replaced the dignity of reporting news that made the original anchors celebrities to begin with. NBC has invested millions in building the Brian Williams brand. He is important to the franchise. It will be interesting to see how NBC responds, and perhaps more importantly, how the industry responds, when the American public is already cynical about the impartiality of the news.
There is more at stake here than just Brian Williams and his future. The reputation of an entire industry is at risk.