I’m firmly in the “Brian Williams has done a bad thing” camp. I’m surprised by how many people — media and others — are making excuses for him. There are some neuroscience people gamely trying to explain it away, but this seems pretty simple to me: You were shot down or you weren’t. You don’t misremember that, even from the distance of more than a decade. Williams is a pro, that was hardly misspeaking.
But those are details. Big details, but details.
Here’s the key: Brian Williams and the culture of ‘I, we and us’:
If he had stuck to telling stories about others and not himself, NBC anchorman Brian Williams would not be in the mess he is in this week.
Pay attention to the words highlighted in bold.
On March 26, 2003 when Tom Brokaw introduced Williams’ report on Dateline saying, “Our colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call over the skies in Iraq. Brian tell us what you got yourself into.” Williams reported, “In the end, Tom, it did give us a glimpse of the war as few have seen it. We asked the U.S. Army to take us on an air mission with them and they accepted. We knew there was risk involved, we knew we would be flying over Iraq, we discussed it, we weren’t cavalier about it. We took off and that is right about when things started to happen.”
That’s a dozen references to Williams and his NBC News crew in six sentences. A story that might have been about soldiers risking their lives was, from the very beginning, focused on the newsman covering the soldiers.
In the next five minutes and 26 seconds of the news story, Williams used the word “we” 19 times, the word “us” eight times and “our” twice.
That is the foundation of the complaints that some soldiers have raised in this controversy – Williams takes stories about others and makes them reflect a story about himself as a compassionate, brave, worldly and “on the scene” anchor.
The problems that Williams faces today largely have to do with what he said about himself, what he experienced, not about others. Television reporters everywhere may be able to relate to this pressure to promote themselves as a franchise, be pithy and visible online and in social media, show some personality on the air, appear to be empathetic and informed and relate what YOU saw, not what others experienced. Williams’ case may just be the poster child for what happens when journalists forget that the story they are covering shouldn’t be about them.