It's sad to see a good man fall from grace. Nobody rejoices in seeing NBC anchor Brian Williams suspended for six months without pay. But nobody doubts he deserves the punishment, either. The best anchor on television, hands down, Williams nevertheless committed the one unpardonable sin: He told a big, fat lie about himself on the "Nightly News" – and thus violated the sacred trust we place in network news anchors. So now he's out of a job, with no guarantee of coming back. "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" is now simply "NBC Nightly News." Overnight, the highest-rated anchor on television no longer exists.
What brought Williams down was not just the fact that he lied about being in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the early days of the Iraq War, but that his stretching of the truth was so unnecessary. The fact is, he did accompany U.S. forces on a dangerous mission. Their helicopters somehow got ahead of the front lines. They were forced down by a sandstorm, behind enemy lines, and had to spend two nights in the desert before being rescued. That's enough to earn Williams a spot in the broadcast Hall of Fame. He didn't have to invent being shot down, on top of all that.
And at first, he didn't do so. In his original story from Iraq, Williams reported that "a Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky by an RPG." Over the next 12 years, he told that story many times, most notably on David Letterman. And, every time, it seems, he embellished it more and more – until he was riding in the helicopter hit by an RPG and almost laid down his life for NBC on the battlefield.
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Now, let's be honest, who among us hasn't done the same thing? Over time, we all tend to exaggerate our proudest moments. The chip shot we sank gets farther and farther from the green. The fish that got away gets bigger and bigger. Our friends realize we're probably embellishing the story, and smile. But Brian Williams doesn't get or deserve the same break. Because he was talking about our U.S. military on a very critical mission, early in the war – and because he's a network news anchor. Anchors are about the only people we can trust anymore. Or so we thought.
In fact, had he been an insurance salesman, contractor, or politician, Williams would not be in so much trouble today. Bill Clinton lied under oath about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He wasn't suspended for six months without pay. Neither was David Vitter, for allegedly making phone calls to prostitutes from the Senate floor. Unfortunately for Brian Williams, we hold news anchors to a higher standard. And rightfully so.
In network news, trust is the coin of the realm. That's not the case with pundits, commentators, or even anchors on cable news, most of whom do a poor job of hiding their political bias, if they even try. But it's different with the three network news anchors.
We place our trust in network news anchors to tell us the truth. Right down the middle. Period. We don't need them to tell us whether what they're reporting is good or bad, or whether it helps Democrats or Republicans. We'll make up our own minds about that. And we certainly don't want them making up stories about their own personal experiences. We just want the facts.
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NBC is now conducting an internal investigation into all of Williams' on-air reporting since he took over the anchor chair in 2004. And reportedly they've already discovered he was also not telling the truth when he told of seeing a body float by his French Quarter hotel during Hurricane Katrina – because there was no flooding in the French Quarter. If proven that Iraq was not the only case of his embellishment, it's unlikely he'll return as anchor.
Ironically, Williams' suspension was announced the same day Jon Stewart stepped down after 16 spectacular years as host of "The Daily Show." Over the years, in a tragic ending only Shakespeare could write, the two top personalities had changed roles. Jon Stewart's "fake" news seemed more and more real – and Brian Williams' real news turned out to be more and more fake. To which Uncle Walter could only say: "And that's the way it is."