I wasn’t surprised when I found out Brian Williams had been temporarily ousted from the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News.
After years of retelling what turned out to be a false account of riding in a helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire in Iraq, the mask was unceremoniously ripped off. It started after what appeared to be a good deed turned publicity stunt — one in which Williams honored a veteran by accompanying him to a hockey game with cameras rolling. As the event was recalled during the Nightly News soon thereafter, Williams told his war story for what would become the final time. It was the last straw for the weary soldiers who had actually endured what the news man claimed to have experienced. Days later he apologized on air, but it seemed the tangled mess was beyond the stage of a quick fix.
“We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months,” began the February 10th all staff memo by Deborah Turness, president of NBC News. “The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately.”
Turness acknowledged Brian’s “responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.”
The story from Iraq isn’t the only thing now in question. Personal details from other news events, even an account of being mugged at gunpoint while volunteering in his quiet hometown as a young man, are now being examined more closely, with some uncertainty as to whether they pass muster.
Where we thought stood an infallible house of bricks, there are scattered remnants of what looks more like a house of cards.
But within that pile, there are some gems of truth that need to be pocketed.
Truth #1: Tell it. The truth, that is.
Live life with integrity. Speak and act truthfully. It becomes a hallmark of character.
Truth #2: When you make a mistake, apologize. If it can be fixed, fix it.
At some point, we all mess up. Our stories are different, but the lack of perfection is shared by all. Genuine remorse can work wonders for our own hearts and minds, as well as for those who may have been affected by our mistakes.
Truth #3: Don’t get too big for your britches.
I love this old-fashioned southern idiom. It’s something my grandmother used to say. If a person has gotten too big for their britches, it means they have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Whether it’s the president, the country’s top news man, a paper-pusher, or keyboard clicker, no one is so important that they can disregard decency.
Truth #4: Recommit. Forgive. Move on.
We need to forgive ourselves as well as others. That doesn’t mean there’s an absence of consequences. It doesn’t mean we blindly trust, without applying common sense. It does mean that we look for every possible good. It means we recognize that everyone makes mistakes — even the person looking back at us in the mirror. We recommit to ourselves and our values. And we move on, determined to live them.
Despite the glamorous stereotype, being a journalist isn’t easy, and it’s rarely glamorous. It’s a high-stress environment, and there’s a lot of pressure to perform. I’m not saying this as a way of excusing Brian Williams’ mistakes, but I think it’s worth acknowledging nonetheless.
I can still remember one of my first assignments on the job in the last newsroom where I worked. A reporter from a competing station scooped me by reporting a tidbit of information I didn’t yet have. Minutes after our reports aired, there was a terse reprimand from my assistant news director. I vowed then and there that I would never be bested again. It did inevitably happen on occasion, but it was uncommon. (That assistant news director, by the way? Still one of my favorite people.) My co-workers at that station were like a second family, and there was a fantastic sense of comradery and trust there.
It wasn’t like that at the first news station where I worked as an anchor and reporter, which required a healthy sense of paranoia to survive.
Because the news was often slow and the resources quite limited, some of the news staff decided to create their own news, inside the outdated station walls. Enter the back-stabbing and spiteful behavior that most folks left behind in high school. Even some who were old enough to know better got swept up in it, lured in by the tantalizing promise of youth and attention. Although there were a few genuinely kind people there, the environment as a whole was toxic. There’s a reason why I felt more at home with the production crew. Sure, they laughed at me when I messed up (and taught me to laugh at myself), but they had my back on more than one occasion. I think that’s because they saw firsthand some of the knife-throwing that went on behind the scenes, and they knew I wanted no part of it.
Adding to the performance and social pressures, there’s the pressure of the news itself. While I never reported on wars or hurricanes, in the station and town that felt most like family, I saw a lot of heartache and pain. There were fires and wrecks, a horrific plane crash, murders, assaults, freak accidents, and child abuse — along with tornadoes, snow, and ice. I saw, heard, and felt things I will never forget. Despite the heartache in some of the day-to-day, I felt a sense of honor in being on some of those scenes, because I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion. When I saw people hurting, I felt some of that hurt. I didn’t relish being in their private space, but when they wanted to share their voices — to tell their stories — I was there to help them do it.
In all of that, there is one thing that never occurred to me — and that’s to exaggerate what I saw or experienced. It was difficult enough by itself. Intentionally adding to or falsely reporting a story would not only have been wrong, it would have been mocking the profession which I had spent most of my formative years working towards.
Journalism ought to be synonymous with truth and the pursuit of it.
It’s also true that people are in the business for all kinds of reasons. There are those who desperately want to see themselves on television, or their names in print. There are those who crave the feelings of importance and power. And there are those who have idealistic hopes of helping others and making the world a better place.
I identified with the latter — I wanted to (and believed I could) make a difference somehow.
I’d like to think that Brian Williams pitches his tent in that same camp, and that along the way, he got a little sidetracked. Maybe it was the stress or the pressure. Maybe it was the siren call of attention. Maybe it was a medical issue that involved a really faulty series of memories. Only he knows the answer to that.
But if he is in that camp, and there’s a good heart at the center of it all, and a commitment to truth in journalism, I’d like to see him make his way back. I don’t know if he’ll be able to captain the ship again in quite the way he was accustomed to doing, but I think there’s still room for him as a news man.
That’s my hope, anyway. Time will tell.
Sarah Elizabeth is a wife and mother residing in a small Southern town filled with rolling green hills and thousands of kind, beautiful faces. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning television journalist, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about her daily observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane is her blog. Click here to follow her on Facebook.