Long gone are the days of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. Gone are the days when news was supposed to inform rather than entertain. Today, ratings are king and Fox calls itself “news.”
It could be argued that Brian Williams’ fabricated story about the helicopter he was riding in being shot at in Iraq is no big deal; that in the big picture, it’s a minor fib compared to those that got us into Iraq in the first place, or those uttered by Fox News on a daily basis.
While I haven’t been screaming for Williams’ head since the lie was revealed, I’ve been squeamish. In my experience, no one lies just once and Brian Williams is a showman before he’s a newsman – it’s the modern requirement of the job. I’d be surprised if there weren’t more stories out there and I’d be surprised if some didn’t have much bigger consequences.
It seems likely that in the next few weeks, we’ll be reading about a lot of Williams’ fabrications. The Washington Post is already revealing a few, mostly about his Peabody Award winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Three stories in particular are being called into question:
Among them: The one he told about witnessing a suicide at the Superdome. Or the one he told about watching a body float past the Ritz-Carlton, perched at the edge of an otherwise dry French Quarter. Or the one about the dysentery he said he got. And, finally, the story he told about the Ritz-Carlton gangs. Three separate individuals told reporters no gangs infiltrated the Ritz-Carlton.
Source: Washington Post
If you read the Washington Post story, all of Williams’ narratives about Katrina have been called into question.
Perhaps the most damaging of his alleged fibs is the one about the armed gangs. The narrative surrounding Katrina was already racist. It was one of black people “looting” and white people “finding.”
Many felt that the very fact that the levies failed and that the response was so slow was a direct result of racism. It certainly didn’t help anything if Williams made up a gang of armed black people terrorizing guests of a prestigious hotel.
As (writer Judith) Sylvester described Williams’s story, the “Ritz-Carlton soon became a gang target.” She wrote that Williams said he spent one night on his hotel room floor, lying between the window and bed so it would look like the room was unoccupied. “You’d hear young, kind-of-thuggish kids walking about and down the hall all night,” Williams said. “It was terrible. I’m not sure which night I decided to get out of there.”
Unfortunately for Williams, the New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass showed Williams’ story to be highly embellished.
“He heard ‘some civilians’ talking about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and started raping women — including his 24-year-old daughter, who stayed there through the storm,” the New Orleans paper reported. “He rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren’t armed and were easily turned back by police.”
Others confirmed the police chief’s version of events.
That fabricated story of roving hoards of armed black men terrorizing rich white women wasn’t particularly unique. The narrative is as old as slavery and it’s just about as damaging. The stereotype of the black man as thug is part of what caused Trayvon Martin to be gunned down or what caused Eric Garner to be choked to death.
That stereotype is what helps drive the statistic that one in three of today’s black men will serve time in prison, after which, many will become disenfranchised, including losing the right to vote and losing the ability to get a good job.
I’m not saying Brian Williams is a racist. I sincerely doubt he is, but he’s an expert storyteller. He knows that his middle-aged white audience revels in stories about crazy black people. That was the story Americans were telling in the weeks following Katrina, so he simply jumped on the band wagon.
Comparing Brian Williams favorably to Fox News isn’t an excuse. Those of us in the know expect Fox to lie and the rest of us don’t care. Williams, possibly more than any individual, represents what is supposed to be remaining of mainstream media’s integrity. While not an old-school investigative journalist, Williams is presented as a pillar of truth.
If he’s lost our trust, what is his purpose? We, as Americans, need to stop pandering to the lowest common denominator. “Not as bad as” is not indicative of quality. We need to raise our expectations, not lower them.
Featured image courtesy of Deviant Art.