THE SANTA CLARA
February 19, 2014
The disgraced “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams embellished a 2003 helicopter crash in Iraq. This sparked widespread scrutiny of the claims made during his decade-long career and culminated in his six month unpaid suspension from the network last Tuesday.
In the days following the scandal, many highly qualified individuals have come to Williams’ defense. Though they cite various reasons why he should not be faulted for his transgressions, these experts are mistaken in their defense of the latest celebrity to fall from grace, because they fail to recognize the true driving factor behind his public shame.
Television is all about the ratings, and bringing in ratings while maintaining one’s journalistic integrity is difficult. Despite that, we still exhibit outrage at the “shocking” betrayal that occurs when a media figure thinks that more people will listen to his story if he says he was in the helicopter that was fired on by insurgents instead of the one flying behind it. Yet Williams’ supporters don’t see this.
One such defender was Jon Stewart. As he put it, “I am happy finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War. It might not necessarily be the first person you’d want held accountable on that list, but never again will Brian Williams mislead a nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if we had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual (expletive) war.”
Other supporters have attributed his lie to the work an overeager writer or producer looking to make the news more interesting. Some have centered their defense on the faulty nature of human memory.
While each position has merit, Williams’ supporters have yet to take into account the true of nature of his actions.
Simply put, his actions were not the mistake of an underpaid intern, a sad decline of an incredible mind or even the spark that should reignite criticism of the Iraq War. Brian Williams’ embellishment was merely good television. And in today’s ratings-driven, sensationalist media, that’s all that matters.
Almost 50 years ago, the “CBS Evening News” anchor Walter Cronkite, a man widely recognized as “the most trusted man in America,” offered such a harsh critique of the Vietnam War that Lyndon B. Johnson allegedly proclaimed “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” a month before announcing that he would not seek reelection. As the pinnacle of media and journalistic integrity, if Walter Cronkite proclaimed something on his program, it was true. In the years when he was on the air, Gallup polls showed that over 7 in 10 Americans expressed a “great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”
Today, however, that number is at an all time low. Our televisions show America’s most prominent news anchor being suspended for lying. They show the Oakland television station KTVU airing a report stating that members of the crew of the South Korean Asiana Flight 214, which crashed at San Francisco International Airport in July 2013, were named “Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow.” And they show Fox News affiliates in San Diego waiting two full days to apologize for including an image of President Obama over the caption “No Charges” during their coverage of a sexual assault case at San Diego State University.
Obviously the final two instances were incredibly foolish mistakes that could and should have easily been corrected with even the slightest bit of oversight, but they also highlight the decline of American media as a whole. Such a decline is supported by the fact that Gallup polls now list Americans’ “confidence in the media’s ability to report ‘the news fully, accurately and fairly’” at a mere 40 percent.
It is a shame that Brian Williams lied. Americans now have one less trusted media figure to turn to. Which makes the total number, I don’t know, seven?
If NBC decides to fire Brian Williams, that would be unfortunate, for many news anchors and journalists who exaggerated or otherwise embellished stories for ratings will likely join him in the unemployment line.
Or they could just keep him on staff, block all of the employment offers that he will surely get from FOX News, and realize that firing Brian Williams will do very little to restore America’s trust in media. However, evaluating the substance of the stories that media covers, the way they are covered and, most importantly, why they are covered, might.
Thomas Curran-Levett is a junior political science major and the editor of the Opinion section.