Brian Williams wasn’t ‘mistaken.’ He lied.

By Ian Hagerty

("Brian Williams 2011 Shankbone" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
(“Brian Williams 2011 Shankbone” by David Shankbone – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

If you haven’t heard, once-reputable NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has apologized publicly for claiming he was on board a Chinook helicopter that was shot by enemy fire during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. What you may not have noticed is that Williams hasn’t admitted to lying about the reality of the incident, only claiming that he was mistaken.

Williams posted this apology:

“I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING (sic) about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area – and the fog of memory over 12 years – made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

Sure, it’s reasonable to say people tend to be a bit forgetful and mix up certain memories over the course of just over a decade, but honestly, don’t you think he would have remembered a helicopter crash?

I don’t remember all of the details of my life; nobody does. I do, however, remember the most significant instances I’ve experienced in my life. I don’t remember all of my junior year of high school, but I remember crashing my friend’s car into the back of a Durango on I-95. I remember the air bags exploding into my face and the feeling of friction burn on my forearms.

How can we possibly expect that Williams simply mixed up the details of such a dramatic incident? Sometimes people block out and forget traumatic experiences, but I’ve never heard of someone absorbing another person’s. Is he the first telepathically empathetic journalist? No. I think it is completely safe to assume that Williams lied intentionally, and that he had a reason.

The news today is competitive. Reporters constantly strive to find the most captivating, heart wrenching or amazing stories. To become known and respected as a journalist, it can require one to be in the right place at the right time. Good journalists will wait patiently to be in the right place at the right time, or work diligently to get in position to capture the right moment. It takes someone desperately seeking attention to lie like Williams did. I imagine that as soon as he learned of the other helicopter being shot, he was jealous he wasn’t inside of it; especially when he found out the occupants of the damaged chopper had survived. You might empathize with Williams’ desperation to become successful and well known. It’s too bad he lied last week, after already achieving fame, trust and notoriety.

Williams also inspected the impact area of the downed chopper. He witnessed the damage and all associated with it, yet he claims to have accidentally associated himself. You’d think that as an experienced journalist, Williams has the ability to put himself aside when covering a breaking story. It is absolutely essential for a reputable journalist to be able to detach him or herself from a news story so that an incident can be reported with as little bias as possible. How then, did a veteran journalist manage to fail the simplest test and most serious ethical concern seen in news media?

The answer is clear, Williams is a liar, and he knows it. The type of apology he issued was written to admit nothing. His apology only expressed sorrow for a brief “mental lapse” that he created. I don’t believe him for a second. As an aspiring journalist, I feel nothing but contempt for Williams’ actions.

Even if you do believe his excuse: can you possibly trust the reporting skills of a journalist who can’t even remember if he was in a helicopter crash? And whether by lack of memory or by fallacy, what else has he gotten wrong over the years? We need to trust the words of our journalists as much as we can, and his credibility is ruined.

On Tuesday this week, NBC suspended Williams without pay for six months. I think he should have been fired. Maybe he only lied once, and maybe most of Williams’ reporting over the years has not been a waste for his viewers, but the fact remains that he lied. And we can’t trust him to bring us our news any longer.

Ian Hagerty is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]