On Brian Williams and Journalistic Narcissism

On Brian Williams and Journalistic Narcissism

Last night, NBC made the decision to take veteran news anchor Brian Williams off the air. The network suspended Williams for six-months without pay following the revelation that his story about coming under fire in a helicopter during the Iraq war turned out to be a rather colourful lie.

What’s even more remarkable is that, back in 2003, Williams presented a report live on NBC in which he clearly states that it was the Chinook helicopter in front of the one in which he was travelling that took the hit. Not that both aircraft came under fire.

Flight Engineer Lance Reynolds called the reporter out on his fabrication of events, reminding Williams that not only was he not present in the helicopter that was hit, but that he actually came up to Reynolds an hour after said aircraft had landed in order to ask him what had happened. In response to this refutation, Williams responded by uttering a less-than-convincing line about his mistake being attributable to “a fog of memory.” Regardless of whether Williams is a flagrant liar, senile or suffering from a bout of false memory syndrome, the facts of his report were compromised and something had to be done about it. An earnest apology did not suffice, so there was little else NBC could do in the circumstances but suspend him.

In the aftermath of Williams’ suspension, the psychologists have already come out in force to offer up their two-cents to explain away Williams’ imaginings. Sifting through equal-parts wisdom and guff, perhaps one can build an informed picture of the psychology of Brian Williams. But maybe we should take a look at the media, not just the man.

In journalism, reporters must adhere to a system of ethics and laws and notions of objectivity, and it should be their duty to ally themselves on the side of facts. But of greatest concern for a journalist is the desire to have what they have produced published and for their work to be viewed. And what ultimately governs readability? Newsworthiness, sensationalism and content that is better produced and fuller than that which you can find anywhere else. What you produce has to be interesting, or else it’ll fall into the ether. And if it’s not that interesting, you’d better be well-versed in the dark-art of PR messaging and a fine crafter of click-bait banners in order to massage your perceived worth. If someone comes to you with a story, however worthy it may be, and it quickly proves itself to be the literary equivalent of a bucket of ice-cold water being tipped over your head or akin to an evening spent in front of the Home channel, it’s not going to be written about is it.

Like Brian Williams, there are many reporters who have fallen from grace after committing a journalistic faux-pas. Johann Hari’s plagiarism and subsequent Wikipedia meltdown springs to mind, as does the downright despicable production of fake Iraqi prisoner abuse photos by the Daily Mirror when it was under the editorship of Piers Morgan. These are two such examples where those desiring to produce the widest regarded/most read pieces of work crossed the point of no return – sensationalism supplanting ethical sense.

Whether it’s down to a lack of press and broadcast (particularly in the US) regulation, public obsession with celebrity and entertainment culture, or our collective desire to be distinct in an over-populated, information-heavy age: the media often push boundaries that ought not to be pushed, and people will do whatever they have to do to be remembered and regarded for something.

Maybe things will blow over for Williams. Maybe after a period in the wilderness, or following the completion of a media ethics course, he will return to American television screens – fronting NBC News or not. But what I think is important – and here I may end up sounding rather too much like Jon Ronson in the Psychopath Test – is for our culture to watch its narcissistic tendencies. With the ever-increasing ascendency of multi-platform content providers, social media and smart phones, people are, now more than ever, able to capture their experiences, communicate their opinions and share their own stories. Which is good, but we must be careful not to fall too much in love with the sound of our own voice – it’s the issues of discussion that matter most.

Appearing on Letterman in 2013, Williams does the opposite of this as he regales both host and audience with his fabricated helicopter tale. Though a gifted orator, his story feels rehearsed, like a theatrical monologue. It serves not just to convince the audience of his heroics, but himself.

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