Why Brian Williams’ Hubris Is Worse Than Plagiarism

When the news first broke about Brian Williams, I felt a little bad for the guy. It must be hard for the NBC News lead anchor to spend the majority of his professional life living in the shadow of the all powerful Tom Brokaw. Williams has spent his career proving he’s a “real” journalist; getting in the trenches, going into the line of fire and experiencing his stories firsthand. As a struggling young journalist myself, it’s depressing to know that I will never live up to the reputation that Edward R. Murrow or Bob Woodward have left for me.

In a field that respects tenacity and bravery, being larger than life is what it takes for broadcast journalists to distinguish themselves from the cable news talking heads or the incredibly attractive yet hopelessly vapid local anchors. Proving your chops today is difficult, after all. There aren’t many chances to broadcast live from the London bombings or cause a president to resign. There is a clear line in the sand drawn dividing the Walter Cronkites and Tom Brokaws from the Brian Williamses and the Matt Lauers, one that Williams was determined to cross.

Williams just looks like a journalist. He has that smooth yet clipped way of speaking, and his face is just lopsided enough to lend an aura of determined seriousness while delivering a newscast. It’s not difficult to imagine him camped out in the trenches, cursing at production assistants, throwing out rundowns and going with his gut. He seems like he’d be natural in a smoky newsroom, his sleeves rolled up as he argues through the night on which way to approach a breaking news story.

It’s not difficult to imagine, because Williams has spent the past 10 years systematically and quietly convincing the American populace that he is that kind of journalist.

It’s important to note that (as far as we know) Williams never lied during his broadcasts. NBC is launching a detailed investigation into his reports, and in several months we may learn otherwise. But the initial stories are all true and accurately reported. His chops as a journalist and his reporting ethics aren’t the heart of the problem. This isn’t a Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair dilemma—it’s something so much worse.

Instead of a hack lying about sources, Williams is a perfect example of a skilled and experienced journalist allowing himself to get sucked into the celebrity and giving into his own hubris. He broke the number one rule of journalism: don’t put yourself in the story.

His evolution is clear, showing more and more details blurred and changed as he went from learning about a helicopter convo that took fire, to eventually looking down the barrel of an RPG as it shot down his own helicopter. Other instances have grown over time as well, like the tale of the time he saved a puppy from a house fire—or were there two puppies? Instead of breaking a Watergate, because of his tall tales Williams now finds himself entrenched in puppy-gate.

As a journalist, you observe and report on the facts, free of bias and personal agenda. Journalists were never meant to be celebrities or talk show guests. They perform a very specific service, and while many are certainly worthy of being respected and looked up to, their persona should never outshine their work.

America already has a problem with trusting journalists. Between Fox News and MSNBC, the nation is sick of biased media. It’s difficult to turn on the news without hearing some new conspiracy or fear mongering. And while he may have been a poor stand-in for Brokaw, Williams was the closest that America had for the “most trusted name in news.” And now what do we have? Sorry Lester Holt, but I don’t think you’re gonna cut it.

As a consumer of news, its disheartening and enough to make me fully shun broadcast journalism. As a journalist, it makes me paranoid and on edge. It’s hard enough to maintain the ethics and rigor of reporting the news in a world that revolves around social media and is more concerned with Kim Kardashian than human rights violations in neighboring countries. And now we must add to this pile of burdens the fact that establishing and maintaining credibility and trust are harder than ever.

It’s a sad day when comedian Jon Stewart is able to end his career with more journalistic credibility than a man who has served as a lead news anchor for 10 years. As I check over my AP Style, I imagine Tom Brokaw hovering in his NBC office, slowly shaking his head, his eyes filled with great sadness.

I understand the desire for attention and celebrity, Brian. But how could you let Tom down? How?

Hope
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