Context, Lies, and Videotape: Brian Williams and the Role of TV News Anchors in the 21st Century

At some point, all of us have slightly embellished a story for dramatic effect.  

It's something we don't set out on doing, and yet, it seems to happen to everyone at least once throughout our lives.  Often times, we don't even realize the embellishment until a follow-up question is asked or another person who is also familiar with the story brings forth the notion that our story might consist of a slight inaccuracy.  When either of those responses we occur, we sit back, laugh, and respond with, "Oh, you're right, I guess that's not exactly how it happened."  We then continue on with our story, again doing our best to keep it as true as possible.

TV news anchors do not have this luxury.

They never have.  In order to provide the viewing public with an honest, open, and unbiased presentation of the news, today's TV news anchors are expected to describe a newsworthy event exactly how it happened.  It is not their job to make judgment calls as to why it happened or which political policy may or may not have created the situation.  It is not their job to rush to judgment, but rather to let the facts emerge over time.  It is not their job to embellish events in order to sell a story that may very well be more entertaining than the original. 

And yet, in today's dog-eat-dog world of news media, all of these things are common occurrences. 

While Brian Williams is the latest TV news anchor to come under fire, he most certainly won't be the last.  The high-stakes pressure on TV news anchors to produce consistently accurate, reliable, and rapid responses to current events as they happen has become overwhelming.  Today's news media has adopted the Talladega Nights philosophy of "if you ain't first you're last."  The quest for ratings and subsequent advertising dollars has created a culture where networks would much rather jump the gun on a story and apologize later rather than wait extra time and make sure the story is right.  It is this kamikaze style of journalism that led Aaron Sorkin to create The Newsroom and has also led an entire generation of concerned, educated citizens to forego the nightly news altogether. 

The numbers show exactly how much of a systemic problem this shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of news coverage has become.  Lost in the fray have been such well-researched and insightful programs like The Rachel Maddow Show, which recently produced its lowest ratings in six years.  While Rachel's show flounders, the world of Fox News continues to dominate the ratings, despite the fact that 60% of all statements from its pundits are lies.  Worst yet, but hardly surprising, is the fact that Fox News is the most trusted news source in America.  What all this means is that it doesn't matter if what you say is true as long as you say it first and you keeping saying it over and over again.

And so it is of little surprise that a veteran news anchor like Brian Williams of NBC would tell a little white lie to help boost his own as well his his network's profile.  I mean, if your competition is a network that tells the truth 40% of the time, what's so bad about one small embellishment?  Even if it wasn't specifically Brian Williams' helicopter that got shut down, does that not mean that Iraq wasn't a dangerous place in 2003?  Does that not mean that American soldiers were putting their lives on the line at the time?  Does that not mean that this was an active war zone in a campaign to take out an Iraqi dictator?

Of course it doesn't.  But that misses the point.  The point is that Brian Williams was in a position of responsibility to the American public.  He was entrusted to relay what he saw and heard exactly as it happened.  Had he simply told the truth about the incident then it would have been powerful enough:  RPG fire, sandstorms, and two harrowing nights in the Iraqi desert.  But Brian Williams got greedy.  He felt the need to embellish his story, thereby adding himself to the aircraft that was shot down rather than the truth about simply witnessing another aircraft that was shot down.  By juxtaposing this information instead of reporting on a story, Brian Williams became the story.

And that is where a news anchor loses the public's trust.  When you intentionally make the story about yourself rather than the story's true participants, then you have manipulated the viewer.  What Brian Williams did was more than simple embellishment:  What he did was manipulate a situation for his own personal gain.  Nobody would have thought less of Brian Williams because he wasn't in an aircraft that got shot down by RPG fire.  Yet, here he is, currently taking a leave of absence and now having his previous reporting being criticized for potential factual inaccuracies.   The problem is that once you intentionally lie to the American people, it is hard to earn their trust back.

Unless, of course, you work for Fox News.

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