There are some moments in life I will never misremember: The joy of seeing my newborn son for the first time. The sweet excitement of my first kiss. Or, the terror I felt on September 11, 2001, as I wandered the streets of New York with my 7-year-old son, trying to protect him from the horror all around us as we and millions of others walked for miles to safety.
Joy and pain, those memories are locked in my mind, and barring any onset of dementia, the details of those experiences will never fade. Most of us are wired this way, and that is why much of America, including myself, is having a hard time understanding how NBC news anchor Brian Williams could possibly have “misremembered” whether he was actually aboard a Chinook helicopter forced down by rocket fire during the Iraq invasion in 2003. Especially when there were multiple witnesses around to remind him of the truth of what happened that day.
Instead, Williams inserted himself into the story. He made himself the hero and for that he should be held accountable. Since that day in Iraq, Williams has retold the dramatic story of how he survived the terrifying experience, while reporting on the war. It was a classic tale of the unselfish, intrepid newsman, risking his life to bring America a close-up glimpse at the horrors of war. But after finally being called out earlier this week by the real heroes of that day who risked their lives, Williams now has a different recollection: He was not on that plane, but on another one that landed later.
“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” Williams said this week. “I want to apologize … I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
Williams’ admission, 12 years later, came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was “nowhere near that aircraft or the two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire.” According to soldiers at the scene, Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the three helicopters in front of him landed. And they’ve been wondering for years why the news anchor got it so wrong.
“It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer, reportedly told Stars and Stripes. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”
In addition to his public apology, Williams owes a private apology to the soldiers who flew on that mission and an apology to every man and woman who fought bravely and died to protect our American freedoms, often without glory. Those are the people who make it possible for a guy like Williams, a college dropout, to realize the American dream of rising to the top in their career and entering the privileged class. But often times it’s too easy to forget to give others credit, especially when we get overly impressed with our individual accomplishments — or as it seems in Williams’ case, when we value the glory over the story we are trusted to report.
We live in a competitive, celebrity-driven culture where few of us are immune to the power of television to turn even the most obscure among us into overnight superstars. Once the cameras come on, it’s tempting for us to get caught up in our own hype, to value celebrity over substance, and to start talking about ourselves as a “brand.” And sadly, journalists are no exception. Providing stories (or content, as we now call the news) is a 24/7 business. And to stay in business, we need people to watch, read, re-tweet and share our content. Brian Williams does this better than most and that’s why he has been called “America’s Most Trusted Newsman.”
Mónica Guzmán, Seattle-based journalist and vice chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, says what Williams did was absolutely wrong and that he should be held personally accountable by both his audiences and his employer, NBC.
“We are in a moment of outrage. One of the primary journalism tenants is to tell the truth. Trust is our only currency and when you lose trust there’s not much left,” she told me.
Williams has broken that principle and Guzmán believes society suffers when that happens.
“We know the difference between when the WWF wrestler says, ‘I’m going to kill you…’ and what Brian Williams says on a newscast. We have an expectation of accuracy and it needs to be credible. If we don’t have sources of information that we can trust, we cannot be an informed society.”
Will his apology be enough? Or, is coming clean 12 years later too little too late for Williams? Only time will tell. But the backlash to his apology has begun. Several soldiers on the plane that day are not satisfied with Williams’ apology and say he’s still exaggerating the facts and his role in the story.
Either way, it’s a sad day for journalism and the public. I’m hoping NBC will send a strong message, a suspension without pay or even dismissal, if it turns out Williams has done unrepairable damage. When journalists believe that misremembering is a legitimate excuse for misleading the public — it’s time to get a new job.