By now you’ve heard about NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his ‘misremembering’ of an incident during his time reporting in Iraq. The fabulation has earned him the dubious honor of near-immediate memeification, with photos of his face set against the words ‘I was there’ (or photoshopped riding shotgun next to 2PAC) showing up as comments on news stories all over the internet. Williams might be taking six months leave from his job, but his face, and now sullied reputation are all over the place.
Americans have always had a peculiar relationship with their television news anchors since the advent of the format. Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and their square-jawed peers have been unofficial paternal figures for a huge nation pointed towards their screens in the evening to be consoled, informed or terrified. That’s why Brian Williams’ recent fall from grace has gotten so much attention.
Williams is known in equal for his journalism and for his seemingly unlimited capacity for self-ridicule on ‘30 Rock’ and various late night shows, including on the Daily Show. There is something comfortingly circular about his many appearances on Jon Stewart’s eviscerating show, which in many ways has replaced the mainstream news as a source of information about domestic US politics and foreign affairs. According to numbers on activist site Take Part, a mere “29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, and more than half of Americans say that news stories are often inaccurate”. You can blame Peter Arnett, Dan Rather, Lara Logan, and now Brian Williams for that. Entertainment Tonight – bastion of level-headed analysis – has even suggested Williams should take up the mantle at the Daily Show now that Stewart is stepping down.
Jumping ship to a comedy network notwithstanding, discussions around this latest debacle bring up some interesting questions. While facts should undoubtedly remain the ultimate cornerstone of news reporting, is a little creative license really such a heinous act? We operate in a daily environment where facts and accurate portrayal of reality have become overrated when it comes to telling overarching narratives about the contemporary world. Demanding pure undistilled truth from our peers, as we all busy ourselves with the permanent editing and embellishment of our own lives and narratives through our own media channels seems a bit odd.
Decades ago, Ryszard Kapuściński, one of Poland’s most celebrated authors and arguably the world’s most acclaimed foreign correspondent, wrote dispatches from dozens of the world’s conflict zones. He witnessed revolutions and coups in Africa and Latin America. He told his country, and later the world, about some of the events that define humanity as we experience it today. John Updike worshipped him. Gabriel García Márquez called him “the true master of journalism.” But, as a Slate piece that ran the week of his death in 2007 clearly states, “there’s one fact about the celebrated war correspondent and idol of New York’s literary class that didn’t get any serious attention this week. It’s widely conceded that Kapuściński routinely made up things in his books. The New York Times obituary, which calls Kapuściński a “globe-trotting journalist,” negotiates its way around the master’s unique relationship with the truth diplomatically, stating that his work was “often tinged with magical realism” and used “allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.””
Do Kapuściński’s fabulations make him less of a truth-teller? I don’t think so. The creativity of his non-fiction told a greater over-arching narrative that goes beyond the cataloguing of facts. He told a Story. In 2015, between the constant news cycle on television, the increasingly prompt outrage cycle online, Fox News, our friends’ social media feeds and ISIS, we live in an age of excruciatingly permanent media, political and personal propaganda. If a lie tells a story that needs to be told, and that reveals a larger truth, so be it. That might not be what Brian Williams was doing – his ambitions might have been more vain – but that shouldn’t stop others from embellishing if they’re telling a wider truth.