Many people were very upset and disturbed when NBC Nightly New anchor Brian Williams lied about having come under fire when flying on a military helicopter in Iraq.
They felt Mr. Williams, whom they had trusted to communicate to them the important news of the day had betrayed that trust.
They wondered, how could he have been so cavalier about the truth? They called for his dismissal, and when NBC decided to suspend him without pay for six months, there was not a complaint to be heard across the land.
The public cannot accept that their news anchor lied to them – even if it is a silly sort of exaggeration about the perils they have faced in their dogged pursuit of a story. But what the the public doesn’t understand is that this very type of aggrandizement is in fact the very essence of Brian Williams career – and that of every other major news anchor.
Once a journalist has reached the position of news anchor, he or she is really no longer a journalist – they just play one on TV.
Mr. Williams reportedly earned $10 million per year as the face of NBC news. His job was to look good and deliver the news with a believable, reassuringly deep voice. At that level he is no longer required to do the grunt work of journalism – there are plenty of low-level, low-paid flunkies to do that. All Mr. Williams had to do is to read what appeared on the TelePrompter in front of him.
But in the highly competitive, personality driven world of network news, it’s not enough to have a capable newsreader heading your nightly programs… the constant demand for ratings means something more is needed. To attract viewers and gain their loyalty the networks actively portray their anchors as romantic figures who will travel to the ends of the earth, risking life and limb in a brave selfless effort to bring truth to their loyal viewers.
But the truth is that news anchors today are really simply actors playing a role. When we see them filing reports from exotic, war-torn locals, what we never see are the support staff behind the camera, the assistants, the hair and make-up people, the producers, camera and sound people. We are never told shown how the anchor was flown to the first-class to the location, never given the inside look at their deluxe suite at the nearest 4 Star Hotel.
We never see how the locations are chosen and the camera angles manipulated to suggest great peril, when in fact our hero was never in actual danger.
The anchor is actually just a newsreader… no more, no less. He knows that. But what makes this dreary job acceptable – in addition to the outrageous salaries – is the image he and the station’s PR Department present to the world… one of dauntlessness and bravery in the relentless pursuit of the truth.
So when the publicity departments of these television stations are constantly involved in inflating the importance of the news anchor position, when the producers and editors are forever manipulating locations and stories to create drama and danger when in fact none exists – it’s easy to imagine that someone like Brian Williams might from time to time forget that telling the truth is in fact something that his viewers expect of him.
It’s easy to imagine after many years of play-acting at danger, of playing along when your employers inflated your exploits and adventures, that you might find yourself falling in line, and playing the part – even if that means stretching the truth a little bit… because after all, isn’t that what the job is all about?
I for one am glad that Brian Williams was caught lying. Because his silly aggrandizement actually exposes a greater con – and that is how we are manipulated by the news media to believe things which are patently false.
Brian Williams is a liar. They all are.
And lying about being shot at are the least of their sins.