In the wake of anchor Brian Williams’ suspension from the "NBC Nightly News" for claiming to have come under fire in Iraq, VOA spoke with media critic Jim Naureckas of the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Weaver: In the piece that you wrote, you point out that this is not the only time in which Brian Williams has exaggerated his role in a dangerous situation.
Naureckas: Right. We did a piece in 2010 about Brian Williams recalling his coverage of Hurricane Katrina, going down to New Orleans. His actual coverage of Hurricane Katrina was quite good, and quite sensitive about the role that racism played in why certain communities were more vulnerable than others, and why the relief was not equitably distributed and so on. But in the five-year look back at Katrina, he was suddenly describing a place of violent looters who were going to kill him for his car if he wasn't protected by armed feds surrounding him. And none of this was present in his original reporting. It was something that crept into the story, as he retold it looking back five years later.
Weaver: Was he retelling it in the context of being a news anchor, or was this on the "Late Show with David Letterman" or something?
Naureckas: This was on a "Dateline" special, looking back at Katrina, so,, yeah, this was news reporting. It wasn’t late-night entertainment.
Weaver: Why do you think he dramatized his role?
Naureckas: Well, I think it’s interesting that Katrina was a story that really put him on the national map and made him a national figure, but his reporting then was actually very sympathetic to the residents of New Orleans and concerned about racism in the relief efforts. And it’s not really the kind of image that a national news anchor wants to send, that they’re interested in the plight of minorities and inequality. It’s much better to brand yourself as a brave reporter who faced danger when reporting, [who] came under fire. It’s not dissimilar from his Iraq reporting, where he wanted to stress that he was under personal danger in the situation.
Weaver: What if anything does this episode with Brian Williams have to say about the news media in general?
Naureckas: I think it does bring home how much news is about personalities, and how reporters, journalists, try to create an image for themselves as a certain kind of reporter. And that image doesn’t necessarily correspond to the reality, when you go back and check what really happened, but it is the kind of branding that they want to have associated with their face on your TV screen.
Weaver: What do you think will happen to Brian Williams, should he return? And what should news organizations do to keep stuff like this from happening?
Naureckas: I think it really needs to be made clear that your job as a reporter is to get the facts straight, first and foremost. That Brian Williams is now associated in the public mind with exaggeration and self-spin is, I think, a problem for NBC as they try to sell their news product as straight reporting. To that extent, I think it might be a helpful thing for viewers to have some skepticism about the product that they’re getting. I think that there is an awful lot of spin and acceptance of fabrication, not usually about the reporter themselves, but about the things that they’re reporting on.
Weaver: A lot of people know to be suspicious of certain news outlets that hype, but the networks — NBC, ABC, CBS — you sort of think of them as being more judicious and businesslike in their approach to reporting stories.
Naureckas: Well, you think about the stories that Brian Williams told about his war reporting in Iraq, and you can say, "What does it matter whether his helicopter was hit by an RPG or not? Does that really affect the news people are getting?" Well, it does affect people when Brian Williams says of the Iraq invasion that “it’s called the cleanest war in military history.” That is a more important exaggeration than whether or not his helicopter was hit by an RPG, and it really colored the way that people watching NBC News understood the invasion of Iraq.
Weaver: It seems that the news business has an intrinsic tendency to favor myth-making and a storyline, rather than gritty, ugly little details.
Naureckas: The idea of news as a kind of miniseries, I think, really does shape the way that they present the news. They want stories to have good guys and bad guys, to have a beginning, a middle and, hopefully, a happy ending. And that is not usually the shape of events in the real world. And so you have to cut and spin to fit the events of real life into that kind of made-for-TV narrative.
Weaver: And I suppose they do it because it leads to higher ratings, so I suppose realistically this isn’t going to change. It’s just that one guy got caught out, he went a bit too far.
Naureckas: He had spent a lot of effort in creating this Brian Williams persona, appearing on David Letterman and Jon Stewart and so on, to come and be this particular kind of person that, hopefully, people would want to spend half an hour with every day to hear what he has to say about the events of the day. And when you have that kind of emphasis on personality, it does tend to take away from the idea that you are attracting an audience because you are actually telling them the important things that happened in an accurate way. If that’s not what you think of as the thing that you’re selling to people, then those values of accuracy and significance are going to fall away.
Weaver: So do you think there will be any changes, or what sort of changes do you see happening?
Naureckas: Well, in terms of NBC and Brian Williams, I’m sure they have market-testing focus groups that are going to give their impressions of Brian Williams, and that, more than anything, will determine what happens at the end of six months. If they feel that this has been forgotten or blown over, then they’ll put him back. If his brand has been damaged, presumably they’ll find a replacement and go with that person as the new brand of "NBC Nightly News."
Weaver: Erik Wemple [of the Washington Post] wrote a piece saying that Jon Stewart's piece on the Brian Williams episode was sort of an attempt to rescue him and minimize what he had done. He made the point that a lot of people have been making, which is how come nobody has tried to make the news media accountable for the way they just played along in the run-up to the Iraq war?
Naureckas: Right, there is more of a willingness to look at an individual’s exaggerations about their own personal history than about the more substantive exaggerations about what is really happening in the world and that really affect millions of people, because the individual’s fibs can be written off as just their own personal quirk, and not reflecting on the system as a whole.
Whereas, if you went and looked at like, "Why did everyone believe these stories about weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be based on fabricated evidence, and if you had looked closely at the time, you could tell were fishy stories that were twisting things around to tell a narrative?" The job of the news media is supposed to be to tell people what reality is, and if they were so falling down on the job that they could not tell you that the reasons that were advanced for starting a war were not real reasons, it does call into question the whole institution.