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What Should We Make of the Brian Williams Scandal?

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If you've been following the news, you've probably heard about the recent scandal involving one of broadcast television's most popular and experienced news anchors, Brian Williams. Williams has been lead anchor of NBC Nightly News since 2004—I personally can't remember an anchor on NBC before him, and I'm sure many of you like me spent many a night listening to Williams narrate the day's major events in that no-nonsense but calm rhythm of his. Williams is currently on a temporary leave, however, after it recently came to light that he was not telling the truth when he claimed that his helicopter had been shot down by an enemy grenade while he was reporting in Iraq in 2003. The subsequent media storm has forced Williams off the show for an unknown period of time, during which Williams will be thoroughly checked and investigated to ensure he hasn't falsified any other anecdotes. Already, a story he told about a 2006 trip to Israel—during which he allegedly rode with Israeli military officials in a Black Hawk helicopter—is coming under scrutiny. Williams left the show last Friday, explaining that he had simply become too much a part of the news himself, to the point where it was no longer possible to remain in the neutral and distanced role of a news anchor. Williams is right—indeed he has gone from reporting the news to headlining it, and in his profession that is simply unacceptable. Until this blows over, Williams will not be able to resume his position. 

As a journalist, I understand more than most the value of what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness."

There are many rules in journalism, but by far the most important, the "golden rule" for all who report the news (whether print, broadcast, or online) is to tell the truth. Stick to the facts and only the facts. Don't elaborate, embellish, or fabricate. The story should speak for itself if it's been unearthed by good, solid reporting. Most of the time (barring biases and ideologies which cloud certain news outlets) reporters abide by this rule, mostly because it makes them more reliable and accredited. In other words, it gives them street cred. Journalism is a tough business—very few make it to the top, and many of those who do may still have little sense of job security. Williams appeared to have achieved that comfortable level of both security and status until this recent revelation. 

I'm sure there are some of you who are asking—what's the big deal anyways? So, Williams may have fudged the details on an old battle tale to make it sound more interesting—who hasn't done that? For the record, you'd be correct: at some point, we have all told white lies to make us look better (and who's going to find out the truth?). Politico's Roger Simon puts the issue in a comedic light in this article. If everybody does it, why is Brian Williams being held in such contempt? It has to do with his specific position. When we turn on the TV or open a newspaper or check a news site, we're putting our trust in whatever outlet or anchor we choose. It is the expectation that they in return must report in an accurate and swift manner. 

The whole reason Williams came under fire in the first place stems from an even greater issue—the idea of news personalities. The fact that Williams felt it necessary to fictionalize this story in order to seem a more worthy news anchor highlights how news organizations bank more on who's reporting rather than what's being reported, in order to secure the best ratings. Why do major news outlets need to "brand" their anchors and reporters? Why can't good reporting, accurate facts, and the best scoops speak for themselves? In my opinion, this should be the issue up for debate, rather than the focus on tearing down Williams' character. And if Williams is going to receive a background check for validity, shouldn't all major evening news anchors get the same treatment? 

Now all this being said, Brian Williams still reported a false story on national television. I do not pardon him for this, nor do I think he should be let off the hook. If the chief purpose of an anchor is to report truthfully, then when the anchor fails to do this, he or she should be held fully accountable. I simply wish to point out that there is a bigger picture here that people should be seeing. And I have no doubt we will all be watching intently to see just how this saga unfolds. 


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