A Hero in His Own Mind
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
The walls of my office at home are decorated with pictures mostly of myself. There I am standing in front of a Western wildfire and posing with Gen. Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier. I have a large framed collection of pictures and press credentials; Air Force One; a presidential campaign; the OJ Simpson trial; a picture of me in desert camo in front of a Kuwait oil well fire. I am the hero of my own adventure.
You do the job of being a reporter long enough and things happen. Bullets fly, rockets land nearby, and burning trees fall in front of your car. I’ve been to riots, floods and wars. But what you always have to remember is that no matter what you’ve seen or been through, what happens to you, the reporter, is not news. The news is what happens to everyone else.
NBC’s Brian Williams got into trouble because network news tries to sell its primary presenters as characters, not reporters, as human beings with feelings, not cold tellers of fact. They have to be likable and relatable.
So Brian Williams goes out in public and on talk shows and talks about himself. He’s likable, funny and holds an audience. He told stories about war, and over time, like a fisherman, the fish got bigger.
He’s a product of his time. Now in the fourth and fifth generation of network news anchors, no longer do reporters climb the ranks of covering floods, wars, and politics to be recognized as having the experience, credibility, and authority to be an anchor. Walter Cronkite couldn’t get a job today. Most of the time the networks look at their audience research and decide who’s going to get the chair, then make it happen.
While Brian Williams is accused of fabricating or elaborating his experience in the Iraq war, you have to realize that Williams himself is in part a fabrication of NBC News. After only a few years of street reporting in television news, he became a local anchor in New York until he was picked up by NBC.
The network determined that Williams had the voice and presence to be the replacement for Tom Brokaw. They put him on MSNBC to build a following and give him thousands of hours on the air. They set about backfilling his credibility by sending him to conflicts and disasters. He was not some hard charging war and disaster correspondent. They just needed video of him with his feet wet for the anchor promos later. He was not Dan Rather who covered Vietnam, he was basically a local anchorman.
Then they put him out there with David Letterman, and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon on late night television. He played himself in a sitcom. Williams’s world became a blend of fact and fiction, news and entertainment. It led him to disaster and possibly the end of his career.
I would not call Brian Williams a liar. I think he’s guilty of story creep. Who among us has not told a story about ourselves, realized it was entertaining, and then told it “better” the next time. The problem for Brian Williams is that he did it on the national stage and he told a yarn about danger in war, which is a sacred subject. You don’t claim it unless you’ve experienced it.
I keep my hero wall at home because I’m the only one who should care. I look at the images and think of certain moments, close calls, and near misses. Occasionally I roll out a story at a dinner party until I get a “that again” look from my wife. But it was Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier, not me. In a lifetime of reporting I’ve had to realize that no matter what happens to me, it’s just not about me. And that’s Brian Williams’ mistake. He made it about himself.