Faking It

NBC News anchor Brian Williams publicly admitted yesterday that a story he had been telling about a wartime experience in Iraq was false, and apologized.  Williams had said, including as recently as a week ago, that while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down.  That didn’t happen; Williams and an NBC crew were aboard a following aircraft that was unhit.

The Williams incident is interesting, because as the story linked above indicates, he initially accurately recounted that he was not in the chopper that was hit by rocket fire.  But over the intervening years the story morphed, and last week in a tribute to a soldier at a hockey game Williams said “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”  Why did the story morph?  Williams attributes it to the “fog of memory” after 12 years and constant viewing of the video of him inspecting the impact area, which caused him to “conflate” his experience with that of the soldiers in the stricken helicopter.

Of course, only Brian Williams knows how and why the real story became submerged beneath the fake one.  It’s hard to imagine ever becoming confused about whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket and personally felt the jolt of the impact and the fear about survival and the chaos of the forced landing — even if it was 12 years ago and you were a big-time newscaster who has had lots of exciting experiences since.

Many people might attribute the change in the story, instead, to the human tendency to exaggerate actual experiences to make our lives seem more interesting and worthy.  It’s a common phenomenon — who can forget, for example, Hillary Clinton’s debunked claim to have run across a Bosnian airport tarmac under sniper fire? — and it’s reflected in false resume entries, “fish stories,” and tales that grow in the telling over the years until the recounted story bears only a faint connection to the reality of the actual incident.

This doesn’t excuse a news reporter telling a false story, of course — but it does make you wonder how many of the personal incidents we hear about from public figures are true.  My grandmother used to say:  “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s not a bad rule of thumb.

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Mike Wallace Signs Off

Mike Wallace died over the weekend.  He was 93 years old, and he left behind a true broadcast journalism legacy.

Wallace was synonymous with the CBS show 60 Minutes, where he was a regular contributor for more than 30 years.  His hard-hitting stories helped to make the broadcast the most popular show in the land, because watching Mike Wallace relentlessly drill down on a sweating interview subject was great television.  I’m confident that every sleazy politician, corporate executive, or head of a charity who got a phone call that Mike Wallace was doing a story and wanted an interview felt a cold chill and inward pucker, knowing the jig was up, the awful truth would be exposed, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Although people associate Wallace with his tough on-air persona, he also was a very capable journalist.  Unlike most modern broadcasters, he wasn’t all about theatrics.  His interviews and stories were usually thoroughly researched and carefully presented.  His approach followed that of radio and early TV newsmen who sourced their pieces just like print reporters did; they were simply using different technology to present the story.  At some point, broadcast “news” veered off into the land of preening personalities, titanic egos, empty suits, ambush interviews, and advocacy stories that never would have made it past an old-line editor.  Does anyone think that Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly, Diane Sawyer, or Brian Williams — or any other modern newscaster — is comparable to Mike Wallace?

Wallace’s death not only marks the passing of a broadcast icon, it also marks the final and unfortunate end of an era.