I want to take a second to congratulate those brave souls in the media who went above and beyond in coming up with a name for the scandal surrounding Brian Williams' lies about a nonexistent wartime helicopter adventure. Sure, it would’ve been easy to follow the playbook and simply append “-gate” to the end of something (Choppergate, Williamsgate, Credibilitygate), but instead they went above and beyond and now the whole scandal is known as Chopper Whopper. I give that name an A+. It sounds like the name of an English candy bar. America’s media establishment doesn’t get a lot right, but when it comes to tearing down one of their own, they pull out all the stops.
I like Brian Williams, I do. I think he’s charming, funny, intelligent, and a good newsman – of course, he’s also been peddling a variety of lies intended to beef up his credentials for several years now, so he’s really not that good of a newsman after all. And come to think of it, maybe he’s not as intelligent as I’ve been giving him credit for, either.
After all, how dumb do you have to be to risk your fundamental credibility as a journalist for the sake of a couple of anecdotes? What exactly was his endgame there? It’s not like he was trying to beef up his resume or something. Brian Williams has been lead anchor on the NBC Nightly News for 11 years – as far as TV journalism is concerned that’s about as much prestige as there is. He was the 23rd most trusted person in America. (Was.) He’s done plenty of real things he can brag about, so why keep coming back to a lie?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m upset that he lied, but I’m almost more upset that his lie wasn’t better constructed and covered up, y’know? If I had Williams’ level of clout and fortune I’d construct a lie that matched my travel schedule for the day and bribe a couple of key witnesses through shell companies to corroborate my story just in case. Then, I’d scatter just enough evidence to suggest that I had a drinking problem at the time, so if the story ever came out I could do a big public tell-all redemption story about how alcohol nearly destroyed my career.
Yeah, if I was going to let America down, that’s exactly how I’d do it.
You’d think that if anyone would be aware of how easy it is to fact check public figures these days, it’d be NBC’s number one newsman who's covered five elections. The fact that he felt like he could lie to his audience with such impunity should be a reminder to everyone that national TV news is, in most cases, a towering pile of unwatchable elephant shit.
If you don’t believe me, pay attention to TV news (particularly cable) between now and November 2016. If this upcoming election is anything at all like the last one or the one before that, you’re going to see a lot of handsome, square jawed men and gorgeous leggy women sitting at desks on expensive sets, talking about things that the presidential candidates said and did. From time to time, these beautiful people will report on what the “fact checkers” at the network have to say about some of the claims the candidates are making.
Here’s the thing: When I think of a person whose job is to verify that public figures are telling the truth, the job title that comes to mind isjournalist. If the responsibility of finding out if powerful people are lying to us has been pushed off onto fact checkers, then what the hell are all these beautiful people at the fancy desks getting paid to do?
I understand that any major news organization needs to employ a lot of people to make sure what they’re saying is correct. I understand that it’s unreasonable to expect Anderson Cooper or Megyn Kelly to personally check every fact in the stories they report – they’re on-air talent and they have a different set of responsibilities. But the way it’s presented on most TV news programs, the amount of time spent repeating and discussing what public figures are saying is far greater than the amount of time spent reporting on whether the person was even telling the truth in the first place.
That’s the most important part of the story. That’s what journalism is ultimately about. But I feel like these days most national TV news programs treat that as a secondary concern, at best. The anchors – their looks, their personalities, their onscreen chemistry – are the brand, and the relatively small portion of the newscast dedicated to what the actual facts are is just there to give the anchors more to talk about.
This isn’t just my opinion, by the way – I did some fact checking about TV news fact checking, and the fact of the matter is that there just aren’t all that many facts getting reported on TV news to begin with. PolitiFact has scorecards tracking the percentage of true and false statements made by journalists and pundits on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox, and unless you like being lied to it’s not pretty.
34% of the statements made on ABC’s news programs are either ‘False’ or ‘Mostly false.’ On CBS it’s 44%. NBC’s number is the same – and when you factor in the 22% of statements that are only “half true”, 66 fucking percent of the things being said on NBC are at least kind of lies.
Looking at these numbers, you have to feel a little bad for Brian Williams. Yes, he lied to his audience and totally compromised his credibility, but he was also working for a news outlet that only tells the complete truth approximately one third of the time. Maybe we should at least give him a little credit for not lying more.