Brian Williams, the host of NBC Nightly News and other programs, is in trouble. Now suspended for 6 months without pay, he — at least for now — gets to keep his job, but has to deal with the consequences of his lying to the public about an incident that happened (actually didn’t — thus the trouble) in Iraq. None of this sounds like a good thing. At best, it’s not as bad as it could be. There have been no really good explanations for what happened. NBC hasn’t made a lot of excuses for his behavior. I believe Williams made a brief statement about “misremembering” or something, but only one and he hasn’t stuck by it. He doesn’t appear with banks of lawyers and there haven’t been “spin doctors” about the whole issue. I have heard someone say he might have PTSD, though I am not sure how that figures in to his lying.
On the “Today” show, the anchors were saying how they had mixed emotions about the events. They said, “professionally, he did wrong, and we agree that this needed to happen, but he is still a friend of ours”. They seemed as genuinely shocked as anyone else about the whole thing. Mr. Williams, as far as they knew, was a man of integrity. They were saddened to find out that he wasn’t always.
So, what possible good news could come out of this? There are a lot of positive things to come out of the scandal. Mostly, they are about us, but at least one is about Williams himself, sort of. Williams was not a flashy man, he didn’t seem to be an “ambulance chaser” regarding salacious gossip. He didn’t seem to misquote others or play sound-bites out of context and repetitively. He didn’t yell, he didn’t cry, He didn’t much care about celebrity in his news casting. I never got the sense from him that he was sensationalizing anything. In fact, if anything, he undersold his stories. So, the positive thing that we can say is that Williams helped us believe that journalistic integrity was possible. Because he wasn’t FOX news or MSNBC, no one thought that he had an axe to grind. Whatever other changes the media has had over the years, the Big Three news anchors maintained a sense of dignity. In fact, CBS has gone back to “hard news” with its CBS This Morning. It remains my favorite morning show because of that. NBC mixes “hard news” and “soft sell” on Today. ABC’s Good Morning America is the softest and has the highest ratings of the Big Three. Even there, George Stephanopulos and Diane Sawyer in the past maintained dignity in their reporting. But because of this, despite our own love of “infotainment” (thus ABC’s ratings), the Big Three gave us actual news about actual events and some underpinning of why this story or that was important, without appearing to give pure opinion.
What this tells us is that, despite “spin” and “journalistic bias”, there is something like Truth out there. There is reality out there, and it is not subject to whim or what we want to believe. It’s just there and we can believe it because we trust our own senses.
Further, there are standards for that Truth-telling, rather than the “truthiness” Stephen Colbert” chided us about. The reason we are all upset — the reason that his colleagues are somewhere between upset and confused — is that William didn’t meet those standards, even though he seemed to. If Rush Limbaugh says something outrageously untrue, we’re offended by it but we expect it. “Aw, that’s just Rush”. There have been some attempts in social media to point out that we have been hearing lies from FOX News for years, and I’m sure there will be those who point out that MSNBC is related to NBC, but that will not fly here, because Rachel Maddow and her cohorts are perceived as being biased — starting with opinions and finding stories/facts to support that opinion.
In short, the Williams scandal points to the fact that we do actually have standards, there are lines one can’t cross, even in the world of relativism. That line has been crossed, but many of us cynics believed that the line no longer existed. More to the point, we didn’t care if it did. As long as “our ” people told us “our” news the way we wanted to hear it, we seemed to be content. That is no longer true. Williams set the standard before he broke it, and it apparently mattered to us.
I remember, during the Reagan administration, the rise of Spin Doctors — people paid to “spin” the reality of some political event (a debate or speech or what have you). The press was fascinated with them, without saying there was a problem there. Since then, President Clinton would spin his own stories, (“I smoked pot, but didn’t inhale” and “It matters what ‘is’ is” come to mind.) The second Bush seems to have blatantly lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and even when reputable news organizations like the New York Times pointed this out, we still went to war — and paid the price. We may have finally gotten to the place as a nation, where “sales is sales” and “truth is truth”, we know the difference and we care about it.
Hopefully our leaders will take notice. At least our media will take notice. Some part of American culture has said, “No more lies” and this scandal is a shot across the bow of the networks. If the media takes this seriously, they will hopefully know that and ask for real truth from those they cover. They will not settle for Scandal of the Week or Celebrity Rehab stories as news . Maybe they won’t care to cover this week’s made up Issue We Should Care About or Values speeches from people who do the opposite. Wouldn’t that be nice? May the new era of legitimate press start now!