In one of his memorable formulations, the great British historian and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay observed (using the pronoun customary for unanswerable judgements) that “we know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.” The phrase perfectly captures the absurd self-righteousness of American media, and a sizeable portion of its public opinion, following the temporary dismissal of NBC anchor Brian Williams.
Williams’ fall from grace was due to “misremembered” accounts of an incident 12 years ago in Iraq in which a military helicopter was struck by a rocket propelled grenade and almost shot down. His original report correctly stated that the RPG had struck a different helicopter to the one transporting him and his crew, but the story changed over time, perhaps inadvertently, and eventually became an anecdote in which he was inside the targeted helicopter. When the mistake was pointed out recently, following an event in which Williams thanked a soldier who had guarded him after the incident, he quickly conceded the error and broadcast a formal apology to his viewers.
Not content with an apology, however, the very media that unquestioningly parrotted the Bush administration’s many half-truths and downright lies on Iraq turned on Williams, intent on transforming a minor faux pas into a career-ending disgrace. As NBC has placed Williams on a “severe and appropriate” six-month suspension without pay, and is currently investigating whether he fabricated stories in his award-winning coverage of hurricane Katrina, his detractors may have succeeded.
Brian Williams was an iconic figure in an age of celebrity journalism. A polished newsman with a sense of humour, he often appeared on late-night shows, not least on Comedy Central’s satirical news programme ‘The Daily Show.’ His downfall is therefore as relevant to the annals of infotainment as it is to modern broadcast journalism. It is probably fitting then that the most intelligent mainstream response to his departure should come from Jon Stewart, host of ‘The Daily Show,’ who lamented Williams’ oversight but consoled his audience with the ironic aside that at least someone was finally being held accountable for telling lies about Iraq.
In its rush to bury Williams’ career, the US media has displayed a painful lack of self-awareness. With monumental hypocrisy it has obsessed over the specificities of his anecdote without admitting its own, far more culpable complicity in peddling fictions about Iraq. Unlike his fabrication, the fictions routinely broadcast by the US media helped sway public opinion for a foolish, expensive and lethal misadventure in US foreign policy.
The blogger Scott Long rightly points out that Williams’ story was nothing more than a detail “in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history.” Set in its proper context, Long perceptively suggests that the moral of the story is probably that “Williams, like the modern news business, is a construct of his audience. He challenges nobody: he sensitively serves up fictions they long to see and hear.”
Although outbreaks of public morality are a regular feature of the culture of modern infotainment, some of them touch on deeper truths. Brian Williams’ sudden fall illustrates how loath any country can be to surrendering its political fictions, and how quickly the corporations in charge of the lucrative business of gathering news will avoid critical self-reflection if they can instead spend their time sacrificing a well-known scapegoat.