Note: Am posting this column a week late because I’ve been out of the country for two weeks. Sorry for the delay. — Tim
The Brian Williams story has bothered me ever since it broke. If you’re a journalist, especially one who has spent time in a war zone, it can’t help but bother you.
It disturbs me for a number of reasons. First, I liked Brian Williams. Liked, and trusted him. He was authoritative as a reporter and anchor and as likable as a favorite uncle. He had a sense of humor. He liked sports (even at the risk of sometimes over-reporting them). He seemed like a guy you could sit down with in a pub and enjoy a lively chat about anything from Washington gridlock to football.
So it bothered me that such a seemingly good guy fell so far from grace – and that it was so unnecessary. He had everything going for him. He was enjoying greater success that 99 percent of journalists ever do. He didn’t need to lie. All he had to do was keep doing everything he did so well and he’d have cruised to an idyllic retirement.
Everything, that is, except lying. As a liar, he’s clueless. Did he really think he could tell those whoppers in the digital age and that no one would
notice? Being hit by enemy fire isn’t something you “misremember.” You misremember where you parked your car. Being shot at is something you absolutely remember – vividly, and for life.
Perhaps most distressing for journalists is that Williams’s fondness for embellishment is a hit to the profession. If someone as trusted and respected as he was fabricated stories, viewers are entitled to wonder, who else is doing it?
But what bothered me most is the why? Why, when he had nothing to gain and everything to lose, would he do such a thing?
And he most definitely had nothing to gain. I know this from personal experience.
That’s not to say that I’ve been in combat. When the Navy was sending virtually every graduate of the communications-technician school I attended straight to Vietnam, it sent me to Germany. In a 40-year career at The Statesman, covering everything from plane crashes to buffalo hunts, only once was I anywhere near a war zone. And it was more than enough to teach me the futility of embellishing what happened there.
It was 1999. The Kosovo War. The Statesman sent photographer Gerry Melendez and me to Sicily and Albania, ostensibly to write about Idahoans involved in the war. In Sicily, we covered Idaho Air Guard crews who were conducting bombing missions against the Serbs. In Albania, we were to cover Idaho volunteers who were helping Albanian refugees of the war.
It took roughly five minutes, however, to realize that the best stories were those of the refugees themselves. They were living in camps where conditions approximated camping with several thousand of your closest friends. Many had lost everything in the war.
Gerry and I did some of the best work of our careers in Albania, but you wouldn’t have known it from what appeared in print. (I can write about it now because The Statesman has different and better management.)
Our second-best story, one we sweat blood over for two days, was never published. When we got home, we were told that it had mysteriously disappeared after being read by one editor. The story that did appear that day was a few hastily written paragraphs from a 30-second interview with an Idaho volunteer who would barely speak to us.
Our best story was about Albanian women and girls who gathered each evening to weep and wail under a tree in one of the camps. The Serbs had killed all the men in their village – their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, lovers. It may have been the most powerful story I ever wrote, and it was rewritten and combined with wire copy to be almost unrecognizable.
What I remember most, though, isn’t the anger we felt about the way our stories were handled. It was gut-wrenching fear.
I’m not a Bob Simon or a Richard Engel; I’ve never been closer to a shot fired in anger than one from the rifle of a German guard who caught me sneaking under a base fence after a night on the town. But I have no trouble at all imagining how those courageous reporters feel when being sent into harm’s way.
Before Gerry and I went to Albania, we were told there was a chance we could get close to the fighting and that we could opt out of the trip if we chose. And Albania at the time had been the most isolated and and one of most oppressed places on the planet – terrorism, executions, suppression of the most basic rights. If that weren’t enough, there was the war. Neither of us opted out, but I’ll never forget lying awake all night before we left, wondering whether we’d see home and our families again. It was as scared as I’ve ever been.
Once in Albania, work took over and fear was forgotten. Nothing bad happened to us there. And, here’s the thing – even if something terrible had happened, it wouldn’t have meant that we were one whit more courageous. What takes courage isn’t surviving things that happen in dangerous places, it’s choosing to go to places where bad things can happen to you. Brian Williams did that. He didn’t need to embellish.
So why did he?
My guess is that his next appearance – his anchor job is history – will be on the cover of a book telling his side of the story.
It should be quite a read.