Having spent most of my adult life in the news business, and much of that time in the TV news anchor chair (although way down the food chain from Brian Williams’s exalted status at NBC News), I have been following his recent travails closely. There is precisely zero chance any advice I have for Mr. Williams would ever reach him, but I offer it here, for what it’s worth.
First of all, there is a sense in which he is not entirely responsible for what happened. In simple terms, I think he, like so many of his and my colleagues, succumbed to what I call “anchoritis.” Having heard himself praised as courageous, omnicient, and bigger-than-life for so long, he began to think all that marketing puffery was true. Embellishing his war experiences was simply his way of maintaining the image created for him by the all-pervasive media he was part of.
I just happened to be rereading Neal Gabler’s insightful book, Life:The Movie as the Williams story blew up. (The jist of Gabler’s book is that entertainment culture has taken over real life so thoroughly that we don’t live our lives anymore, we play a role inspired by all the movies and TV shows we’ve ingested over our lifetime.) Gabler talks about the special challenge faced by those who achieve celebrity in this entertainment culture and their struggle to maintain the image they and others have created for themselves and yet retain some vestige of who they really are. Gabler: “Image, then, was a constant hazard of celebrity because it was a constant threat to self. For all the celebrity profiles and autobiographies that had celebrities finding themselves after drifting in the horse latitudes of fame, the fact was that they were always in the process of finding themselves, which really meant that they were always lost.” Gabler quotes superstar writer, Norman Mailer, confessing to his struggle: “I had been divorced by success from any intimate sense of my identity and had a hard time getting half-way back.” Having faced how far down that rabbit hole I had fallen before I chose to exit media life, I have some sympathy for Williams’s need to beef up his war experience to maintain the image he had long since bought into.
But my sympathy only extends so far. As a journalist, Brian Williams had accepted the obligation to always tell the truth. At least that used to be the basic motto of professional news reporters. It’s embedded in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. I wrote a book about telling the truth (Engaging News Media, Cowley Publications, 2006). My central thesis was that the truth is essential if we are to understand the world around us and know how we should respond to it. I also argued that, in a mass-mediated, post-religious world, we need honest journalists dedicated to informing us honestly and accurately. Anything less than that, I argued, is unacceptable. I know public opinion polls today reveal that most of us think journalists are not entirely truthful, that they lace their reportage with their own opinions or don’t give us all the facts. But that doesn’t change the standard, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps the worst damage Brian Williams has done by lying about his war experiences is to cast doubt on the rest of his reporting work and that of his colleagues across the industry. That’s pretty hard to forgive.
My advice to Mr. Williams, on a personal level, would be to use his six month absence from NBC to search for his real self, the one he lost touch with as he and his image rose through the ranks at NBC. Neal Gabler offers a simple test: Spend some time alone and silent, and try to discover if you have a sense of who you are or whether you feel totally at sea.
On a professional level, my advice to Mr. Williams is: Get out of the “truth-telling” business. Your journalistic sins are now in league with Janet Cooke (who trumped up a story about a little boy caught in the drug life in Washington, D.C. for the Washington Post), Jason Blair (who pilfered other people’s work while at the New York Times), and Stephen Glass (who bought into the media celebrity-image thing so much he fabricated stories published in The New Republic). They are all out of the business, and should be. Maybe, if you’ve actually managed to find the self you sacrificed to the media gods, you could share your insights and experience with some of the eager college students longing to follow in your footsteps. That won’t undo the damage done by not telling the truth in the first place, but it could prevent promising young journalists from inflicting additional harm on the industry and society in years to come. It doesn’t pay as well, but at least it’s honest work.