Sensationalism responsible for rise and fall of Brian Williams

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You should forgive Brian Williams.

For the past decade, Williams has served as the nation’s friendly neighborhood news anchor and the managing editor of NBC’s “Nightly News,” the most-watched newscast in American television. Williams’ coverage of world events like Hurricane Katrina earned him multiple awards for journalistic excellence, he moderated eight presidential debates and his “Making a Difference” segment reminds us that there is good news in the world.

His impeccable reputation was tarnished this month after he was exposed for exaggerating an oft-repeated account of taking fire from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) while aboard a helicopter during the 2003 invasion in Iraq.

Until these revelations, he had assumed the epithet of “America’s anchorman.” But in the media news game, veracity outlives fame, and even Williams’ career is mortal.

And while Williams deserves a second shot at journalism because he has dedicated his life’s work to reporting the news, a return to the anchor desk will be in vain.

In journalism, truth is paramount. When one of the most decorated, trusted and admired reporters embellishes a story for the sake of showmanship, all credibility is permanently lost. And a journalist without credibility cannot continue as a journalist.

Even if Williams remains an anchor for NBC, America will forever remember him for his scandal, despite his commitment to journalism as a career.

Long gone are broadcast journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Kronkite, who secured their places in media history for breaking news on World War II and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, respectively. Today, the first news source to break a story is insignificant, and being correct has taken precedent. Even if Williams’ case was not actually an instance of misreporting, he is ultimately going to be remembered as “the guy who made up that story,” not as an all-time great newsman.

Williams publicly apologized Feb. 4 after his fall from grace, acknowledging that he was in fact traveling in an aircraft that was following the helicopter hit by RPG fire.

“This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension, our brave military men and women,” Williams said in the NBC Nightly News broadcast.

The problem is, Williams did not address why he exaggerated the story over time—bungled mistake or not. His silence is now validating the public’s mistrust in him, making it even harder to imagine him returning to his old post at NBC.

But Williams’ faulty reporting is not entirely surprising. The sensational side of televised news, particularly cable news, revolves around network reporters covering news every second of the day, even if it is not breaking. With the emergence of cable and digital journalism, Williams was groomed to report sensationalized news, and perhaps as a result, he sensationalized his memory.

Regardless of whether Williams exaggerated the story due to a foggy memory or as an act of self-aggrandizement, he may never return to the anchor desk because his reputation has manifested itself in celebrity journalism. Williams has adopted the role as both the serious reporter and fatherly goof—his “30 Rock” one-liners and raps on “The Tonight Show,” are a showcase of his fundamentally endearing, lighthearted persona.

It is this affable figure that has amplified the scandal behind a one-time journalistic blunder and made Williams a media pariah. And it is this celebrity that has let down the 9 million Americans who watch his newscast every night, as they feel they can no longer trust the man who delivered their daily dose of fluffy, sensationalized news.

Last year the NBC “Nightly News” spent a total of 25 minutes all year on climate change, one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. So as the face of this type of news—dramatic, ratings-driven news that has warped mass media— Williams should be pardoned for committing human error.

But America should not forget the intrepid newsman that Brian Williams was before he took the “Nightly News” chair, traveling to danger zones to bring the public glimpses of the horrors of wartime and devastating natural disasters. And if NBC executives eventually decide that Williams can no longer credibly report on war, natural disasters or a lying politician, viewers can rest assured that he will lose his job.

With the commitment to become a journalist comes the responsibility to be the trustworthy narrator—a fly on the wall—who observes and reports the truth above all else. Williams knows how to fly, and he should not be swatted down so easily.

Taylor Majewski is a senior Art History and Visual Arts major. She can be reached at majewski@oxy.edu or on Twitter @TaylorMajewski.