When I first heard that NBC's Brian Williams had embellished his Iraq war reminiscences, falsely claiming that a chopper he was in had been hit by rocket fire, I thought instantly of Mike Valentine, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mike was the subject of a profile I wrote for a daily newspaper in 1999 to mark Veteran's Day, and because he was brutally frank about his disillusionment with that war, it was more of a downer than most. I worked hard to do him justice, and expected he would be pleased with the result.
Instead, Mike was furious, because I had gotten one detail wrong about his war service. It was a minor error, in my view, and in no way embellished his combat role. But Mike feared that someone who was there would read the story and think he had lied. That, to him, would be unbearable. "You don't understand," he kept saying to me, how crucial it is to get everything exactly right about combat, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Trust is everything for soldiers, he said, even long after the war is over.
It took profuse apologies, a printed correction, and time, but ultimately I was able to regain Mike's trust. The experience served me well afterward, particularly when I did a series of interviews with Holocaust survivors. "You must understand," they all told me, that even one tiny error or inconsistency could provide a Holocaust denier with ammunition. Trust was everything for survivors. Thanks in part to Mike, I was primed to take this to heart.
Now to Mr. Williams, currently under investigation for a number of suspicious claims he made relating to his reporting on war and other disasters. Supposedly he saw a body floating outside his ritzy French Quarter hotel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was rescued from marauding gangs in the hotel, and witnessed a suicide inside the Superdome. Supposedly he accompanied Navy Seal Team 6 on a high target Iraq war mission. What's more, he would have us believe that "a friend" amongst the Seals so admired him that he was given a piece of the helicopter that crashed during the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
Usually when a journalist gets into trouble it's because he or she trusted someone they shouldn't have—think Lara Logan and her discredited Benghazi source for a "60 Minutes" segment. It's rarely because the journalist lied about his or her own role—since we're not supposed to be the story. Sure, we all relish personal attention for our work. But we are taught, or at least used to be, that if we do our job really well, we will be relegated to the sidelines or shadows. And no one will miss us. To be fair, as the "face" of NBC, Williams was supposed to insert himself into the center of the action, whether by dropping in on disasters around the globe or bragging about his exploits to David Letterman. And he was very good at it. Too bad he didn’t have a Mike Valentine, or more appropriately a colleague on his NBC news team, to keep him honest.
Survivors of war and other horrors will say they insist on total fidelity to the truth because anything less insults the work, the bravery, the suffering or the memory of their brethren. Journalists owe each other no less.
NBC paid Brian Williams a reported $10 million a year before suspending him without pay for six months. Katie Couric got $15 million a year at CBS; all while CBS was closing down foreign bureaus. To cut costs elsewhere, news organizations are increasingly relying on freelance journalists who have to operate without the heavy institutional support that Williams got whenever he was delivered into a danger zone. These freelancers are often alone, targeted, and being killed in horrifying ways. In his initial, feeble apology, Williams apologized to the military for exaggerating the dangers he faced. He owes another to all the reporters slogging it out in the killing fields while he flitted around the talk show circuit.