Celebrities in News

NBC News Anchor Brian Williams attends the premiere screening of 'Faces of America With Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.' at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday, Feb. 1, 2010 in New YorkIt's not all his fault.

Individual responsibility and accountability are important, even when there is a systemic problem. Both warrant attention, and neither erases the other. Therefore, if someone from a poverty-stricken and otherwise troubled background steals, we ought to punish the perpetrator while still working to address the societal problems that may have contributed to the crime. This is equally critical even when the alleged perpetrator is someone famous – such as, for example, NBC News anchor Brian Williams.

Williams is taking what he has described as a self-imposed break from the air amid allegations that he embellished his experiences reporting on the war in Iraq, making it sound as if he were under more immediate danger than he was. Williams’ initial on-air report appears to be credible; he said in a March 2003 report that he learned that one of the Chinook helicopters ahead of him and his crew "was almost blown out of the sky." The language suggested that Williams did not witness the event, and was told about it afterward.

[READ: The Media's Military Malady]

Later, the story got more dramatic and interesting – and, notably, had Williams looking more like a reporter/soldier who could easily have died, bravely covering the war. In a March 2005 interview with Tim Russert, Williams described the shooting of the helicopter in detail, as if he himself had seen it. In a July 2007 blog post, Williams described the attack again, this time mentioning a pilot who took a bullet in the earlobe. In an April 2008 blog post, Williams said, “we came under fire" – suggesting his own helicopter was hit or shot at (though it could be interpreted to mean that the team of helicopters came under fire, even if Williams’ aircraft was not hit). By March 2013, Williams was telling the story as if his own helicopter was hit, saying on the "Late Show with David Letterman" that “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in.” And in January 2015, Williams reported on the “Nightly News” that the helicopter he was traveling in had been "forced down after being hit by an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]." After soldiers who were there questioned Williams’ account, he apologized, recanted and took himself off the air. NBC is investigating.

There’s no excuse for Williams’ misrepresentation of events, which seemed to grow in drama with each telling, kind of the like the “telephone game” many of us played as kids. While Williams should be held accountable for his misstatements, it’s worth examining the root causes of the episode. And that is the practice of turning news reporters into celebrities and news subjects themselves.

[READ: Trust Shot Down at NBC]

Williams is a reporter. He’s an unusually well-paid and well-known reporter, but he is a reporter. That means that he should be telling us about what happens to other people. Rarely is it news, what happens to reporters. Yet late-night TV, university speech organizers and other outlets treat Williams and other well-known reporters as though they are newsmakers. The network encourages this, since Williams is not just a reporter but a brand for them to sell – and a product for them to market. Williams then must sell not just the news (offensive enough, as William Hurt’s character described it in the now-quaint movie “Broadcast News”) but sell himself as well. And that may well lead to a tendency to embellish events witnessed or experienced by the reporter.

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