Trusting the Storyteller

By Laura Peck

An important disclosure: I’m a fan of Brian Williams. I like his reporting style, his humor on late night talk shows and dashing good looks. I like that he reports the tough news of the day with gravitas and a baritone voice. All the while, I thought that he didn’t take his celebrity too seriously and therefore could mock it. That wasn’t a problem, until now.

Last week, it was revealed that Williams exaggerated his involvement in a helicopter accident during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Through the extensive Williams-gate coverage and commentary, the public has learned how the story has changed and warped over the years. While the Iraq incident was bad enough, his reporting of Katrina is also being brought into question for possible inaccuracies. Williams has since apologized on air, cancelled public appearances and decided to take a short break from the desk at “NBC Nightly News.”

While many Reddit users and internet gumshoes scramble to prove William’s guilt, the truth is, the “truth” doesn’t matter anymore. Just like Williams’ twisting narrative, the American viewer’s minds have been twisted with a seed of doubt. Similar to witnesses being questioned by Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, Williams’ entire profession is based on reporting “just the facts.” Can you trust someone who confuses whether or not they were in a helicopter shot down by a RPG?

And yet, that’s exactly what NBC News and its parent company Comcast is hoping for – viewer’s trust. With Lester Holt filling in this week, NBC News is hoping things will quiet down, no more incriminating evidence appears and Williams can return to his coveted No. 1 nightly news slot.

However, for a news organization that has covered poorly handled PR nightmares, you would think NBC would know the “hope and wait” approach won’t work for a man who has spent his entire career speaking to the American public. Williams’ absence and silence has only led to more speculation as to what else has been exaggerated. Williams should have been more transparent about the incident rather than trying to spin it during his apology last week. With so many fact checkers employed by NBC News, how did it take this long to fact check their own anchor? Or was he just too big of a star to fail?

As The New Yorker noted, “Each of them [news anchors] is seen in roughly eight to ten million homes nightly. They are seen by many more people, and more frequently, than any movie star. To walk down a street with an anchor is to be stunned both by how many people recognize them and how many viewers call out to them about specific stories. There’s a respectful familiarity different from the awe displayed to Hollywood celebrities. The anchor is treated as the citizen’s trusted guide to the news. As a result, they can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God. It’s a short distance from there to telling fantastic stories—and maybe actually believing them.”

This whole incident has made me reassess of how I digest the news. How long has it been since I really took nightly broadcast news seriously in terms of ground breaking investigations? Or were they just an easy way to disseminate the fast facts of the day? A visual twitter feed, if you will. New York Times’ Maureen Dowd said it perfectly in her column this Sunday. “As the performers — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher — were doing more serious stuff, the supposedly serious guys were doing more performing. The anchors pack their Hermès ties and tight T-shirts and fly off to hot spots for the performance aspect, because the exotic and dangerous backdrops confer the romance of Hemingway covering the Spanish Civil War.”

While I am giving Williams the benefit of the doubt that not everything has been embellished, the saddest thing about this whole scenario is that it is taking away from what really matters – the news of the day. The news that people need to know. The news that is factual, relevant and important. The news that will impact our economy, our world and our lives.

Let Williams come back, read the prompter and see if the American public can move on. And if they can’t, well then perhaps it’s time that Williams starts performing somewhere else.