The Brian Williams error: Why do journalists lie?

The latest newsman to own up to a major fib is NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. The funny and likeable Williams has been telling the same story for years — that he was shot down in a helicopter during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003. Except he wasn’t.

Then some soldiers who really had been shot down in a helicopter in the same incident called him out, saying Williams was nowhere near the incident and arrived by helicopter an hour later. An article in the military publication Stars and Stripes gave an account of the story and Williams’ explanation: He “misremembered.”

“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

I’ve never been in an aircraft that’s been shot down; few of us have, and many who were shot down didn’t survive to talk about it. Still, it’s hard to believe that Williams could have confused being in a helicopter that was hit by enemy RPG fire and came tumbling out of the sky with being in a helicopter that landed safely. (UPDATE: Apparently now a pilot says Williams’ helicopter was hit by machine-gun fire. That’s a far cry from RPG fire. And even if it’s only an exaggeration, it still doesn’t let Williams off the hook.)

It’s a story he’s apparently told for years, on and off the air — as recently as a New York Rangers hockey game, where Williams accompanied a retired soldier who had provided ground security for those same grounded helicopters. The soldier received a public tribute and a standing ovation, and Williams repeated his own downed-helicopter story on the nightly news.

So Williams has apologized and, he hopes, moved on. Twitter is not so kind; #BrianWilliamsMisremembers has become one of its most popular hashtags. There are Photoshopped pictures with Williams’ face in place of Neil Armstrong’s face in an astronaut suit, taking the first step on the moon; Williams’ face in place of Ringo Starr’s in a shot of the Beatles; Williams’ face substituted for the face of one of the Seal Team 6 members, like the ones who took out Osama bin Laden. You get the idea.

Nor have those who did survive the incident forgiven and forgotten Williams. “It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer, according to the Stars and Stripes story. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”

Of course, Brian Williams isn’t the only journalist ever to stretch the truth.

There was Stephen Glass. He was a rising star at The New Republic, only to come crashing down in 1998 when it was finally revealed that about half of his stories had been fabricated. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict called “Jimmy’s World” that ran in the Washington Post, but she was forced to return the award when she admitted she made up the character. She later claimed that the “high-pressure environment” of the Post forced her to “corrupt her judgment.” Jayson Blair resigned in 2003 from The New York Times after he was called out for fabrication and plagiarism. He said his main motivation was the fear that he would not live up to what was expected of him.

Misremembering from Brian Williams. High pressure on Janet Cooke. High expectations of Jayson Blair. Stephen Glass’ editor at The New Republic said he thought that Glass “lacked a conscience.”

Besides these reasons, you could add the increased worry over TV ratings, especially the desirable young demographic, who watch very little TV news and barely look at newspapers. And as more newspaper staffs are laid off and newspapers close, what’s filling those papers looks more and more desperate for readers. Perhaps, as there are fewer reporting and editing jobs available, those competing for those jobs might cut a few corners to make a story look better.

These examples don’t even take into account the obvious falsehoods delivered every night on cable news stations. Don Lemon on CNN kept a straight face when he asked his guests if the missing Malaysian Flight 370 had disappeared into a black hole, or if its disappearance could be based on supernatural events. Jon Stewart could fill The Daily Show with examples of daily fibs on Fox — and often does. (Suggestion for a new motto: “We Distort, You Decide.”) A 2014 evaluation by Punditfact, a branch of Politifact, found that Fox told the truth only 18 percent of the time, compared with 31 percent at MSNBC and 60 percent at CNN. Not a record that any of those cable news stations can be proud of.

Is it any wonder that Americans hold journalists in such low regard? A 2014 Gallup Poll reported that only 24 percent of Americans rated the ethical standards of journalists high or very high. But hey — at least they beat out members of Congress. In the same poll, only seven percent of Americans gave lawmakers those ratings.

Gone are the days when Americans could turn their televisions to “Uncle Walter” — that would be legendary CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite — and know they were getting it straight. He anchored the news on CBS for almost 20 years, taking America through the assassination of a president and a man landing on the moon. He signed off every night with the words, “And that’s the way it is.” And America knew that that’s the way it was.

And gone are the days when a newsman like Edward R. Murrow could call out a lying senator on national TV, as he did to Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in 1954. McCarthy had gained notoriety for making spectacular and specious claims about people in government he accused of being Communists. As head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he browbeat witnesses. He and some others in Congress saw Communists in the State Department, the Army, Protestant clergy, Hollywood, libraries — just about anywhere in America where McCarthy could call a witness and question his or her patriotism.

Murrow was having none of it. On March 9, 1954, Murrow devoted an entire episode of his See it Now program on CBS to McCarthy. Using the senator’s own statements, Murrow painted a picture of a man who was reckless with the truth and made ugly attacks on critics. McCarthy, Murrow said, had contributed to a climate of deep fear and repression in American life.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve,” Murrow said in the closing moments of that evening’s show. “We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

If Murrow said these same words today, would anyone believe him? Or even care?

Or even be listening?

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