Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Truth Squad

If Brian Williams thought his lying scandal would soon end, he was sadly mistaken.

One week after the NBC anchor retold his false tale of being in a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq--and just days after an "apology" that has been described as half-hearted and misleading--Mr. Williams is facing new allegations about the truthfulness of his on-air comments.  And his employer has assigned a team of producers and correspondents to look into the matter.

According to the New York Post, the newly-appointed "truth squad" at NBC News will not only examine Williams's tale of near-disaster in Iraq, they will also investigate claims he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Broadcasting from New Orleans, Williams told viewers he saw "bodies float by his hotel in the French quarter," and contracted dysentery from water he ingested following the storm.

As with his Iraq lies, Mr. Williams apparently repeated his hurricane story more than once.  In an interview last year with his predecessor at NBC (Tom Brokaw), Williams claimed he came down with dysentery after ingesting storm water.  He also repeated his account of a dead body floating by his hotel in a 2006 interview with former Disney Chairman Michael Eisner.  The imagery described by Williams was riveting, to say the least.  As he told Mr. Eisner:

“When you look out of your hotel window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” Williams said in [the interview].

And from his conversation with Tom Brokaw:

“My week, two weeks there was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the floodwater. I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs, I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans by a young police officer. We are friends to this day. And uh, it just was uh, I look back at total agony.”

Yet, both claims are demonstrably false.  As the New Orleans Advocate reported, the French Quarter--the high ground in the city--was virtually unaffected by the flooding that ravaged other neighborhoods.  And, a city health official says there were no reports of any dysentery outbreaks after the hurricane:

Dr. Brobson Lutz, a former city health director who manned an EMS trailer that was set up in the 900 block of Dumaine Street, a block from his house in the French Quarter, said he was a fan of Williams but dubious of his claims.

“We were never wet. It was never wet,” he remarked of the conditions in the city’s most historic neighborhood.

As for dysentery, “I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don’t recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward,” Lutz said.

As for Williams saying he accidentally drank floodwaters, Lutz added, “I don’t know anybody that’s tried that to see, but my dogs drank it, and they didn’t have any problems.”

Looks like the truth squad will have a lot of material--and claims--to examine.  But Mr. Williams may not have much to worry about from the internal investigation.  "Producers and reporters" fall below the anchor in the pecking order at NBC News; it's tantamount to the technique sometimes used by the military to investigate general officers accused of wrong-doing--appoint a Colonel to run the investigation, with the tacit understanding that a lower-ranking individual will tread lightly in their pursuit of the truth.  

In one infamous example from the early 1990s, an Air Force Lieutenant General known for reprehensible behavior was accused of referring to a female, African-American officer as a "g--d--n black b---h" in front of his staff.  Because the general had friends in high places, the subsequent inquiry was run by a Colonel.  After many months, the Colonel determined the general's behavior was rgrettable, but the female officer did not suffer racism of discrimination, because the bigoted flag officer "treated everyone like that." 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the truth squad at NBC.  The guy sitting in the anchor chair can make or break your career.  As Bernard Goldberg described his relationship with Dan Rather, as long as you were on the anchor's side, your stories made it on the evening news, you got thank-you notes, even Christmas presents.  But after Mr. Goldberg penned his famous op-ed about bias in network news, he became persona non grata and was exiled from the CBS airwaves.  

Those unlucky reporters and producers at NBC face the same sort of Hobson's choice.  If they hammer Williams--and he survives--the anchor can make their careers a living hell.  On the other hand, if their findings convince the network to dump Mr. Williams, plenty of his friends in the news division will still be around to exact revenge and--if ratings crater--they could wind up being blamed for sinking a #1 newscast.  

In other words, don't be surprised if the "truth squad" produces a report that criticizes Williams's conduct, but provides enough wiggle room to keep him on the job.  It's worth remembering that the NBC News star re-upped with the network barely a year ago, a five-year, $50 million deal.  A good chunk of that money is probably guaranteed and there's another problem beyond a potential buyout: NBC has no one waiting in the wings to replace Brian Williams.  

To be sure, there are plenty of folks who would like a shot.  Matt Lauer, the $25 million-a-year host of Today, has subbed for Williams in the past, but many TV execs don't believe his skill set translates well to NBC Nightly News.  Beyond Lauer, you've got journeyman Lester Holt and that's... about it.  So, it's easy to see why the folks at NBC believe a "damaged" Brian Williams would still attract a larger audience than anyone who might replace him.  

But that creates another risk: given his record as a fabulist, what's to keep Williams from cooking up another whopper on the next big story?  If NBC decides to keep him in the anchor chair, they might as well make the truth squad a permanent unit in the news division; from this point forward, any controversial comment from Williams will be immediately challenged for its veracity.  It's a heavy burden for any news organization whose relationship with its audience is built on trust.  At this point, that relationship is hanging by a thread, but NBC will make every effort to keep Brian Williams.  It's all about ratings and money, and that's the main reason he still has a job.  

Of course, the great unanswered question is why anyone in that position would lie about being shot down in the first place.  Columnist Mona Charen has coined a term--borrowed valor--that sums it up pretty well.  Mr. Williams is part of a media/government culture which reluctantly acknowledges the bravery and sacrifice of those who wear the uniform--while wasting no opportunity to criticize the strategy (and leaders) that send them into combat.  

There may be another factor motivating Williams's body of lies, which can be found in the sense of guilt that liberals often feel about their success.  Not content with rising to the pinnacle of broadcast journalism, Mr. Williams found it necessary to embellish is credentials as a war correspondent.  Never mind that a network anchor in a war zone travels with an entourage only slightly smaller than that of a general officer.  At a minimum, most have a field producer, photographer, and sound technician in tow, and some have their own security details as well. It's not like Brian Williams was a free-lancer, working on his own, and depending on his own wits to survive. 

To be sure, the NBC anchor has enjoyed a storied career.  After bouncing around three colleges--and earning a whopping 18 hours of credits, Williams was fired from his first TV job in Pittsburg, Kansas.  But he quickly rebounded with an internship at the Carter White House, followed by a spot at WTTG-TV.  Despite Williams's poor performance in Kansas, the news director at Channel 5 took a liking to him and began tutoring him as an on-air talent--something that virtually never happens in a major market.  

From there, it was on to Philadelphia and New York, where he was the noon anchor at WCBS-TV.  For whatever reason, Channel 2 never gave him a shot at their 5 and 6 pm newscasts, and CBS News never expressed any interest in elevating him to the network.  But Tom Brokaw saw something in Williams and personally recruited him to NBC News.  From his earliest days, it was very clear that Mr. Williams was being groomed for the Nighty News anchor slot and when Brokaw retired in 2004, he moved into top job.   

Since his early failure in Kansas, it is fair to say that Brian Williams has led a charmed professional life.  Perhaps his steady ascent created a personal sense of invulnerability, or at the other extreme, a sense of wonderment at how he rocketed past scores of equally talented and in some cases, more qualified, journalists.  For whatever reason, Mr. Williams found it necessary and convenient to lie about his accomplishments, and his reputation will be forever tarnished--even if he hangs onto his job at NBC. 






TrT said...

The mind boggles it really does.

Its hard to believe someone could write "Ive just seen a dead body float past my hotel" after they have just walked in through the lobby...

James said...

And these are the people renowned for being accurate and factual in their reports to the public.