Since 2004, NBC News anchor Brian Williams has been at the helm of the nation’s most-watched evening news program. As managing editor of “Nightly News,” his affable personality and authoritative delivery connected with viewers, making him the network’s top news brand and a journalist most viewers felt they could trust.
Williams is now under investigation for embellishing his on-air reports — his sterling reputation in desperate need of tarnish cleaner and his veracity the butt of endless jokes on social media.
Williams said he “misremembered” that the helicopter he was flying in when he was reporting on the Iraq War in 2003 wasn’t hit by enemy fire. NBC is also looking into his award-winning reporting from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
However innocent Williams’s misremembrances prove to be, he will hereafter be remembered for the unfortunate ethical lapse and be media-bundled with a decades-long list of print and broadcast fabricators, plagiarists and out-and-out liars whose questionable actions have sunk the press’s credibility in the public’s eye.
As far back as 1924 during Prohibition, Sanford Jarrell of The New York Herald Tribune reported that a floating house of prostitution was sailing off Fire Island beyond the 12-mile limit. Four sloe gins cost $8, he reported. When neither competing reporters nor the U.S. Coast Guard could find the ship, Jarrell confessed he had made up the story. He was fired, but his story had a happy ending. He went on to a distinguished newspaper career that lasted until his death in 1962.
Jayson Blair wasn’t as fortunate. In 2003 he shook the prestigious New York Times to its roots when he fabricated quotes, lifted material from other publications and filed dispatches with out-of-state datelines, all while never leaving New York City. His deception led to his ouster and the resignations of two top editors.
In 2004, CBS News anchor Dan Rather filed a report for “60 Minutes Wednesday” that questioned President George W. Bush’s tour of duty in the Texas Air National Guard. The authentication of the documents he used to support his claim was called into question, and CBS later retracted the story. Rather stepped down from “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” in 2005. In 2006, after more than 40 years, he left the network altogether.
Those stories and others on media credibility are currently featured in the Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery.
The last — and still only — broadcaster to uphold America’s trust was Walter Cronkite of CBS News. From 1963 until he retired in 1981, “Uncle Walter” was considered by his loyal viewers as “the most trusted man in America.” When he ended each broadcast with “And that’s the way it is,” Americans believed they had been given the true facts. In today’s topsy-turvy news world, it is comedians such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, rather than network and cable anchors, who are more trusted to tell it like it is.
“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” Williams explained.
If history is any indication, his error could prove costly in more ways than one.