Wednesday Travis J. Tritten at Stars and Stripes did an exclusive story about Brian William’s actual experience while in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 vs. the narrative that he either helped create or failed to correct in the subsequent years.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.
The quick twitter take is to call Williams a liar, say he should be fired and bring up his daughter in Peter Pan and Girls for some bizarre reason.
That’s fun for one news cycle, but I wondered, “What can we learn from this story and how can we use it for change?”
My first step was to tweet to @Travis_Tritten to thank him and his sources, whom I will call Narrative Busters because Myth Busters is taken. (I don’t want to call them Whistleblowers because we know what happens to them.)
UPDATE: By Emily Smith and Kenneth Garger at Murdoch’s money losing NYPost ran this last night:
Tom Brokaw wants Brian Williams fired quoting an unnamed source at NBC.
- “Brokaw wants Williams’ head on a platter,” an NBC source said. … and
“Tom Brokaw and [former NBC News President] Steve Capus knew this was a false story for a long time and have been extremely uncomfortable with it,” the source said.
I wrote Smith and asked. How long was a “long time?” 2003, 08, 12? Did they explain why nothing was done further? Also, could you reveal your source? I want to update my piece on the topic but I don’t want to be accused of making up a story about someone making up a story.”
But this is the “shoring up the brand” process that I allude to in the article. How will other networks act?
How Is This “Mistake” Different?
Journalists and “journalists” get called out all the time by groups like Media Matters and comedians like Stewart and Colbert. Sometimes the media address their “mistakes,” often the critics are ignored.
What is different about this story is that it forced Williams (and NBC) to acknowledge his lie. The reason it wasn’t ignored is because it came from another serious media player, Stars and Stripes. Especially interesting is that this player might not have run the story at a different time under a different administration.
I want to encourage more of this kind of work, especially if it is used to improve the quality of our media. What will it take?
Why Was this False Narrative Encouraged For So Long?
Some have asked, “Why wasn’t this corrected sooner?” That’s easy to answer, William’s fabricated close call with a RPG on a chopper was part of the narrative about the war that the media created for itself and for Americans at home.
They were assisted by the military brass who knew a good story when they heard it, therefore they didn’t take steps to correct the record. As they say, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
The lie about William’s getting shot down reinforced several ideas and narratives.
1) Iraq is a scary place and needs control. Reporters need to be embedded with “the troops” for their own protection. The green zone briefing tent gives the media what they need to know. Shorthand for staying put? “Remember what happened to Brian Williams.”
2) We need to fight these people, they are fighting us.
“They aren’t throwing flowers and sweets at us you peace-loving hippies! They SHOT AT BRIAN WILLIAMS! Of COURSE we had to kill everyone in the area!”
3) People with “skin in the game” sell the war better. Some in the military knew it was a lie, but why spoil Williams’ great story? “Let the baby have his bottle.”
4) Excitement! Ratings! Stories about people trying to kill rich innocent journalists are exciting! People at home can feel better about killing Iraq’s when America’s Favorite 30 Rock guest star is almost killed.
Getting the perspectives of the poor innocent Iraqis is boring and makes people at home feel bad. I’m falling asleep just typing that sentence.
5) The biggest relate-able celebrity is always used to pitch the story. Want to tell a story about the massive tsunami in another country? Tell the story of the white supermodel caught in it.
6) Use the “missing white woman” story for war. The decision by NBC and Williams to co-opt a real person’s experience was useful to get the public’s attention and empathy using someone they could relate to.
NBC and Williams might even have justified the lie saying it was representative of others’ real story that wouldn’t get covered without celebrity.
Who Kept This Narrative Going?
That the truth got out at all is rather astonishing, and I’m glad it did. Imagine if this encouraged other people to come forward to tell real war stories vs. the narrative myth created for positive public consumption?
Clearly this story could have been corrected many times in the past, but think about who would have had to do it and what they risked doing it earlier. Then think about how we can force earlier corrections.
Both the military brass and the NBC brass contributed to this “mistake.”
Military’s Role Promoting the Lie
Say you were there, either in Williams’ helicopter or the one actually forced down. When you see the story you go to your commanding officer and say, “That’s NOT what happened!” The officer thinks, “Does correcting this help or hurt our relationship with the media? Does it change the public’s perception of what is happening here?”
If the officer calls out Williams and asks for change what happens? Awkward! Maybe the officer just lets it slide and tells the solider to not bring it up since it’s true in general for people in some choppers, just not specifically for Williams.
Here’s the deal, the military media contacts aren’t the truth police, they aren’t NBC fact checkers. It’s not their job to get the media’s facts right. On the other hand, if the story made them look bad they would demand the truth, or negotiate some kind of deal. “We won’t tell anyone about your little fib, don’t tell anyone about our big lies.”
NBC’s Role Promoting the Lie
Say you were a cameraman on the chopper with Williams and knew the story was BS. You tell the producer who thinks, does correcting this “mistake” help or hurt the story to the American public? What about NBC’s and Williams’ credibility?
How will the NBC brass feel finding out that the “brave reporter” story they have been hyping is a lie? Remember, NBC is the network who fired a top-rated money-making show because they didn’t want to be seen as anti-war. So the cameraman lets it slide since it’s true in general for the people in some choppers, just not specifically for Williams. If people ask questions, blame the frog of war.
UPDATE: NBC’s Tom Brokaw’s pissed about Williams’ lie. He and brass knew for a long time, but didn’t correct earlier. Link to story
We are officially out of Iraq. Ha! But the good news is that this story signals it’s safe to do these stories now since they won’t hurt the war effort. No one has to promote the need for that war anymore, they got what they wanted, now they want ISIS money.
Of course smart people might ask, “Hey, if they made up stuff about the last war, might they be doing the same now with ISIS?” Shut up. Shut up. Shut up! I can’t believe you aren’t shutting up already!
Terrorists, the military and the media have learned about how to rev up people since the non-existent WMDs days. Of course ISIS is bad, just look at these videos! We need money and troops to deal with these bad guys!
How Do We Use This Going Forward?
The media is very good at giving powerful people another bite of the apple. Maybe Williams expects to be granted the same second bite. I’m willing to give him his bite, but I want something, a commitment to doing a better job.
What will be the fall out Williams or NBC for maintaining this multi-year lie? Of course on Fox the right kind of lie is required, it gets you promoted. But the rest of the MSM is not Fox News. Networks are going to want to distance themselves from lies. Bolster their trustworthiness. This is our opportunity to challenge their practices, remind them of their brand promise.
UPDATE: The personal distancing has started, but not the institutional distancing. Link
We can make Williams the butt of jokes, or use his story as a lever. Are they news people or cheerleaders?
A truth and reconciliation program for war journalists doesn’t exist, but if it did, it shouldn’t just be about telling the truth, it should be about being better in the future. ‘In the past I lied. I apologize. I will not do it again. I will use this experience to be better in the future.”
That kind of pledge is what we need.
If Williams’ story was accurate in the beginning, would it have changed the support for the war narrative? Maybe not, but it tells us something that they chose this narrative. There is a pro-war-I’m-a-tough-guy-take-’em-all-out-no matter-what-the-cost, bias there.
My friends who served, write about how horrible war is and want to make sure any future war fought is worth it.
Getting swept up in a pro-war narrative doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of people who encourage it and keep it going. We will need narrative busters for current and future wars. People who can tell the truth and help thwart a easily lead media.
Finally, Williams’ lie wasn’t a mistake for the pro-war forces, it was a valuable gift, worth 100’s of millions of dollars given by NBC to military contractors (one of whom, GE, was its parent at the time). It might also have helped goose NBCs ratings and enhanced Williams’ personal reputation and net worth come contract negotiation time. David Letterman says in this clip how he has new respect for him.
I’m glad that Travis J. Tritten’s story acknowledges the service of the people in the damaged helicopter. But sadly I’m sure there is more than one big weapons manufacturer exec out there who can smilingly say to Williams, “Thank you for your service.”