Newsrooms are snake pits. I say this with great affection.
Newsrooms are tribal and competitive, fueling pettiness in the most honorable people. Editors cling to turfs like dictators policing their borders, and sometimes they mistake intimidation for management. As for reporters, they make their living asking questions and telling stories and too often turn their curiosity onto the private lives of their colleagues. Our profession breeds town gossips.
Still, there is no substitute for the combustible mix of wit, talent and impossible personalities thrown against daily deadlines. It’s arguably a sick thing, I concede, to yearn for big breaking news that makes a newsroom feel one spark away from an explosion. As with any memorable high, once you’re up there, it’s hard to climb down. We’re seldom gracious toward those who get to stay at the top.
It was inevitable that Brian Williams would become the punch line of so many bad jokes once his fellow journalists learned that he had lied about his experience covering the Iraq War in 2003. Specifically, he claimed to be riding in a Chinook helicopter that took heavy fire. This was not true, and Williams’ weak attempt to explain it away as the fog of memory launched the mocking Twitter hashtag “BrianWilliamsMisremembers.” A number of news sites have covered this Twitter-fest. How heartening that so many of us still care about the truth.
Celebrity is so seductive and requires constant vigilance to avoid falling for the notion that the rules for everyone else no longer apply to you. Few of us journalists can lay claim to the fame that contributed to Williams’ undoing. We are an envious group. This does not bring out the best in us.
Of all that has been written about Williams, whom NBC News has now suspended without pay for six months, one of the more instructive observations has come from Poynter’s Al Tompkins, who instructs us to pay attention to the boldface words in the following paragraph:
“On March 26, 2003 … Tom Brokaw introduced Williams’ report on Dateline (by) 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.’”
“A story that might have been about soldiers risking their lives was, from the very beginning, focused on the newsman covering the soldiers,” Tompkins writes. Over the story’s ensuing five minutes and 26 seconds, Tompkins counted 19 more references to “we” and eight more to “us.”
Even before he altered the tale, Williams had carved out a starring role in someone else’s story.
Show of hands, fellow journalists: Who has done the same thing — if not in our reporting, then in recounting to friends and family? I don’t mean making stuff up. I’m just talking about shifting the account to first person, in which we are just that clever, that imperiled, that entertaining. I’m not even referring to solely us columnists, who are paid to be insufferable.
Writer Anne Lamott, in partial defense of Williams, shared on Facebook how an oft-quoted observation by someone else became attributed to her.
The quotation: “You can tell you’ve created God in your own image when He hates the same people you do.”
The original author: Tom Weston, her “wild Jesuit friend,” in a lecture delivered 23 years ago.
Lamott explains: “The first few times I quoted it — probably at Salon, and possibly in Bird by Bird — I attributed it to him. Then the next few times, I didn’t. I just shoehorned it into conversation, as if I’d just thought of it that minute; brilliant daring me.
“And not exactly ‘conversation.’ More like, ‘ While being interviewed.’
“Then, it got picked up, and it was everywhere, and I started trying to correct the lie — at a big public level. …
“The line is frequently quoted, as mine. It’s a great line; it says it all. But I’m sick of cringing and saying I borrowed it. Okay — stole it. Fine.”
Leave it to Lamott to remind us just how reliably human we are.
I won’t defend Brian Williams’ efforts to aggrandize his experience covering a war he wasn’t fighting. Still, I can’t deny the heaviness in my heart. I find no joy in Williams’ crisis of credibility. If scrutiny of his career reveals further missteps, our profession takes a body blow.
I’m pulling for Williams. Selfishly so.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.