Call it what you want, the “fog of memory” or “misremembering,” “conflation” of two different helicopter experiences, or a “mistake I would have never chosen to make.” NBC Nightly News’ otherwise affable anchor Brian Williams has used all four mystifying locutions in three different apologies to explain his memory lapses about his claim to having been shot down with his crew in a Chinook helicopter in a desert in northern Iraq while covering the war in 2003.
In the 12 years since, he’s retold and embroidered the tale about the RPG-hit “bird” in which he was traveling and its terrifying crash landing. Afterwards, he was grounded in the desert for three days during a sandstorm, and that part is verifiable.
Remember the old ad slogan, “Pepperidge Farm Remembers”? That was used to conjure up a feeling of golden, homey, hand-baked goodness for a factory-made loaf of bread. It was powerful. By contrast, the hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers” immediately started blowing up all over social media, leading me to think that the golden-haired, golden boy-ish newsman would soon be toast.
Not so fast. Of course, his on-air apology on Wednesday night lit up social media. Almost instantly, he started getting ridiculed for his misrememberization game. One photo showed him inserted, Forrest Gump-like, into the Last Supper, eating a pizza; another had him riding shotgun in the white Bronco with O.J.
I myself rubbernecked his Thursday evening broadcast to see if he would further elaborate or respond to the response. Au contraire. He seemed relaxed, almost breezy, and did the evening broadcast as if nothing had happened. And out.
To me, this felt like the corporate stonewalling of the NFL or Nixon, and it was as objectionable as his “I was only trying to honor the military” apologies. Never mind, the show must go on. How could NBC, a news organization, not have addressed it in some way, with an announcement of his suspension, or at least a statement acknowledging that they are looking into the issue?
According to Jon Friedman, who teaches at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, whether Williams gets fired “will depend on two factors: 1) the near-term TV ratings -- if they decline seriously, he won't survive this scandal; and 2) if the social media keep hammering on him, he will lose his credibility.”
One would think losing credibility is pretty tough on a newsman. Meanwhile, the story is getting politicized in a typically ugly way. Those on the right are loving it, thrilled that they can prove that NBC and the “liberal media” are all liars and in the tank for each other. (And Obama, natch.) And my brethren on the left have disappointed me as well, pointing to pieces in the New Yorker about unreliable memory, and cutting him major slack as someone who works in showbiz, not news.
Media observer Tom Siebert suggests that this is to protect Hillary, who told a story about being under siege after landing in Bosnia that was later shown to be suspect.
What makes a respected, successful person lie like this? Well, obviously, it feels good in the telling, because the dramatic story elicits mad praise and admiration. Secondly, when you are a celebrity, the stories then take on a life of their own, and who are you to dispute it?
For example, NBC created promo spots for Williams’ 10th anniversary as anchor, boasting about his “integrity,” and including treacly lines like “his battle scars are worn on the inside.”
One of the ironies is that Williams is so popular and refreshing on the late-night shows because, while endowed with the proper younger-newsman gravitas, he shows himself to be funny and self-deprecating in the off-hours. (And he also shows up to support his daughter Allison, one of the stars of “Girls,” who in this season’s opener had an eye-opening scene involving a love interest attending to her rear parts.)
Rewatching Williams elaborate on the helicopter tale for several minutes on “Letterman” in 2013 is especially disheartening — every one of his peacock feathers is unfurled. And it made me realize that as a suck-up to a certain kind of middle-aged male media peer, Dave has no peers. It becomes mutually glorifying for him in the heroism department, too, I guess. “I have to treat you now with renewed respect,” he told Williams. It made me revisit some of his interviews with Lance Armstrong, who sat there and flat-out lied while Dave treated him reverentially.
This examination of lies vs. heroism is particularly painful in the wake of analyzing the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a culture, we are processing the entire slog for the first time. One of the reasons that the Clint Eastwood-directed film, “American Sniper,” about Chris Kyle, is such a smash at the box office, and resonating powerfully, is that it does allow us to process these issues in a way that’s not all gung-ho war.
That’s why we like revisiting World War II. It was the last “winnable” war, with clear victors and losers. As a country, we still haven’t come to terms with Vietnam; at this point, we can’t even define ISIS; and unfortunately, many of our strategies have helped create new vacuums for terrorist groups to fill. And certainly, returning vets have not gotten the health services and job opportunities they deserve.
This is a lot to conflate. We are living in the most cynical age ever, where we can silently think, “Say it ain’t so!” but where corporate stonewalling works. From the outside, so far the NFL has worked on the domestic violence front mostly by creating a beautiful commercial that ran on the Super Bowl.
The truth is that we are a country with big secrets, in desperate search of heroes. And the heroes that the media seeks to embrace are managed and packaged. Real heroes are the ones who do what they do away from the media glare.
In the end, it just comes down to business: money and ratings. Maybe, eventually, NBC will do something, the way Sony just announced that Amy Pascal is stepping down. In the interim, they are protecting Williams from a different kind of brutal firefight.