“We Expect A Higher Standard From The Old Guard”: Brian Williams’ Lies Are Not Equal To Those Of Fox ‘News’
There’s this speech I give my students. Distilled, it goes like this.
“Your primary asset as a journalist is not your dogged curiosity, your talent for research or your ability to make prose sing on deadline. No, your one indispensable asset is your credibility. If you are not believable, nothing else matters.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to Brian Williams. The NBC Nightly News anchor saw his career crumple like used Kleenex last week after he repeated one time too many a story he has been telling for years: how a U.S. military helicopter on which he was a passenger was shot down over Iraq in 2003.
But the man who was flight engineer on that copter said on Facebook that Williams was never on it. Instead, he was on the one trailing it. Williams apologized for conflating the two, blaming the “fog” of memory.
The incident was remarkably similar to candidate Hillary Clinton’s false 2008 claim that she came under sniper fire as First Lady during a 1996 visit to Bosnia. As it turns out, an American dignitary was shot at in Bosnia — just not Clinton. Rather, it was then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, six months before.
Then, as now, one is tempted to ascribe the lapse to false memory, that phenomenon where you recall with clarity things that never happened. Then, as now, one is hampered by the sheer drama of the events in question. A person may honestly misremember eating at a certain restaurant or seeing a given movie. But you’d think you’d be pretty clear on whether or not somebody almost killed you.
So now, people are poring over old newscasts to determine whether this is an isolated incident. A statement by Williams of seeing bodies outside his hotel during Hurricane Katrina was initially mocked, but has been found on closer inspection to be more credible than first believed.
Fans of Fox “News,” at least to judge from my email queue, are having a ball with all this. I wrote a column a few weeks back blasting Fox for its habitual, ideology-driven inaccuracy. Attacking Fox is not for the faint of heart. Its viewers (like Rush Limbaugh’s listeners) tend to take it personally, responding with such a nasty, visceral outrage that a body might think you’d blasphemed their deity rather than criticized their news outlet. I savaged CNN in this space last year and while some folks took issue, no one called me a “bleephole” or invited me to “bleep” myself. With Fox fans, that’s the salutation.
So this latest news brings a flood of email crowing over Williams’ troubles and demanding I give him equal treatment.
As I wrote in the aforementioned column, serious people do not take Fox seriously. Indeed, consider the level of angst, the sense of expectations betrayed, that has attended Williams’ failure and ask yourself: Would there be a similar outpouring if someone at Fox had told this whopper?
Fox is what Fox is, but its distortions and mendacities are generally only mistaken for gospel by a stratum of the electorate already predisposed to its bizarre worldview. The rest of us like to think we can expect a higher standard from the old guard of the news media, meaning the likes of CBS, NBC and The New York Times. And usually we can.
But every time that belief is betrayed — meaning not garden variety errors of fact, but catastrophic failures of journalistic integrity — the damage is exponentially greater precisely because the level of trust is exponentially higher. Such failures feed the disaffection and cynicism of a politically polarized nation where the universally accepted fact is an endangered species.
It’s a state of affairs that makes it hard to run a country. Or to be one.
So people asking that I give Brian Williams equal treatment are missing the point. If, indeed, he lied, then his sins are not equal to Fox’s.
They are worse.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, February 11, 2015
“Brian Williams’ Tangled Web”: If I Were Williams, I’d Get Out The Resume Or Check My Retirement Portfolio
None of us is without sin, but still, you have to wonder how this sort of thing happens (per Stars & Stripes‘ Travis Tritten):
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.
Williams repeated the claim Friday during NBC’s coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for a retired soldier that had provided ground security for the grounded helicopters, a game to which Williams accompanied him. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, he said he had misremembered the events and was sorry.
The admission came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
I guess the “conflated” account of Williams being under fire became part of his official “bio,” and couldn’t be de-conflated until someone finally blew the whistle. I can’t even begin to assess what the punishment should be for this deception, but if I were Williams, I’d get out the resume or check my retirement portfolio.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, February 6, 2015
The march in Paris yesterday expressing solidarity in the wake of the terrorist attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was an inspiring sight, with somewhere between one and two million people, joined by world leaders, proclaiming their defiance of terrorism and their support for freedom of expression. But don’t think for a second that politics was absent, there or here at home. For instance, there was apparently a great deal of behind-the-scenes wrangling between the French, Israeli and Palestinian governments over whether Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas would attend. Back here in the United States, the Obama administration has been roundly condemned for not sending sufficiently high-ranking officials to participate in the march.
Many argued that President Obama should have attended, since other heads of state like Angela Merkel and David Cameron were there. “Our president should have been there,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz. Others said that if not the President, then at least the Vice President or Secretary of State should have gone (the U.S. was represented at the march by the American ambassador to France). The criticisms have been somewhere between vehement and vicious, and not just from conservatives, but from mainstream reporters and news organizations. CNN ran a headline reading, “Where was Obama?” The New York Daily News cover read: “You let the world down.” Jake Tapper, writing about the absence of American officials, opined: “I say this as an American — not as a journalist, not as a representative of CNN — but as an American: I was ashamed.”
Let’s dispense with this specific question with no more than the attention it deserves: It would have been all but insane for President Obama to participate in a march, in public, in a foreign country, with a couple million people around him. The security requirements necessary to protect him make it impossible. The Secret Service has to do an extraordinary amount of work and planning for him to drop by Ben’s Chili Bowl a mile from the White House; the idea that with a couple of days notice he could walk through the streets of Paris in an enormous throng of people is absurd.
But let’s be honest: practical considerations aside, the world wasn’t waiting to see whether Barack Obama would participate in this particular march. As shocking as this idea may seem from our perspective, sometimes it’s not entirely about us.
And it isn’t as though the whole American political leadership, from the President on down, haven’t spoken out on this subject. Should the administration have sent Vice President Biden to the march? Yes, they should have. That would have been a fine gesture (and I’m guessing he could have fit it into his schedule). But what’s interesting to me is the way that people and organizations that hesitate to express personal opinions on other topics feel free to issue thunderous condemnations of the White House for its less than active participation in what is, after all, a symbolic act.
Maybe my memory’s faulty, but I don’t recall any other journalist committed to the ideal of “objectivity” saying he was “ashamed” about the fact that millions of Americans have no health coverage, or about the 30,000 Americans killed by guns every year, or about our ample contributions to global warming. It’s precisely because those things are about real people’s lives that it would be considered deeply inappropriate for a mainstream journalist to express such an opinion. But you can say you’re ashamed about something entirely symbolic — and in the long run essentially meaningless — like the fact that the American ambassador attended a march when it would have a bigger deal had the Secretary of State or the Vice President been there.
That isn’t to say that symbolism is unimportant. Much of politics is about the creation and dissemination of symbols. But what exactly is the damage that has been done by the fact that a (supposedly) insufficiently high-ranking American official represented our government at this event? Will the peoples of the world no longer believe that America is an advocate for freedom of speech, or that Americans abhor terrorism? I doubt it.
And before anyone gets too self-congratulatory about his or her own courage and ideals in expressing solidarity with those murdered in France, consider another event that occurred last week, when Boko Haram killed as many as 2,000 men, women, and children in the city of Baga, Nigeria. There are mundane reasons why that news got so much less attention than the events in France — perhaps most important, those killings occurred in an isolated place, while Paris was already full of reporters, and more could get there quickly and easily to report on the story. But it’s undeniable that a terrorist attack in Europe — and one targeting journalists — is going to be of infinitely more concern to the media in Europe and America than an attack in Africa.
When someone in France or Germany or the United States says “Je suis Charlie,” in many ways they’re right. The victims of the Paris attacks were people like them, which makes the horror of their murders feel more real and immediate. And of course, there’s a critical democratic value at issue, that of free expression, which allows us to expend plenty of words considering what these events “mean.” Boko Haram’s victims, on the other hand, weren’t advocates for a cause, and their deaths weren’t imbued with symbolism. They were just human beings.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, January 12, 2015
Here are a few sentences I should not have to write but apparently must, all the same: Taking the life of another human being is an absolutely terrible thing for a person to do. By definition, murder is a crime — perhaps the most heinous one there is. No one should be physically threatened, much less killed, for sharing an opinion. Everyone should have the right to say, write, draw or otherwise express whatever sentiment they’d like without fear of violent reprisal. And anyone who thinks it’s not only appropriate, but righteous, to use violence or the threat of violence in order to silence those they disagree with is as profoundly wrong as they could be.
Some more things that should go without saying: The massacre of 10 journalists (and two law enforcement officers) at the offices of the Paris-based satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that was carried out this week by Islamic extremists was an obscenity, a crime whose evil could never be adequately expressed with words. No matter how blasphemous, callous, insulting and bigoted the political cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo over the years may have been, there is nothing — absolutely, positively and undoubtedly nothing — that could ever justify or excuse such fanatical sadism. The men who organized and perpetrated this slaughter were villains of the highest order, opponents of many of humanity’s greatest intellectual breakthroughs and moral achievements.
You can probably tell already, but I resent feeling that the above two paragraphs are necessary. But because I also happen to believe that many of the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo were mean-spirited, lazy, unfunny and sometimes baldly racist; because I do not believe that it is necessary for me to promote these cartoons in order to oppose their creators’ murder; and because some of the more influential members of the media and the government are trying to make lockstep support for Charlie Hebdo’s work a new litmus test of one’s belief in human freedom and dignity, they are. Indeed, for far too many people, it is seemingly impossible to hate the cartoon but love its creator. It’s a mindset that reminds me of nothing so much as McCarthyism — and as Matt Yglesias explained the other day in a thoughtful and sensitive post, it really sucks.
When I think of the people insinuating, or outright claiming, that one cannot claim to be a true opponent of radical, eliminationist Islam unless one showers Charlie Hebdo with unqualified praise, there are a few folks — mostly former supporters of the Iraq War — that most immediately come to mind. My colleague Heather Digby Parton has quite skillfully dismantled Jonathan Chait’s latest piece of preening bravado already, but he’s hardly the only person of influence who’s responded to the attack by whipping himself into a frenzy of empty bombast and portending (or is it promoting?) a coming apocalyptic struggle. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen tweeted in response to the news that the “entire free world” must avenge the killers’ victims “ruthlessly.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali predictably agreed and wrote that “the West” must respond to the massacre by ceasing to “appease leaders of Muslim organizations in our societies.”
Even some journalists who present and think of themselves as on the liberal side of the debate over radical Islam could not help but frame the killings as just one small part of a larger, epochal struggle. “The … massacre seems to be the most direct attack on Western ideals by jihadists yet,” wrote the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were grand and nightmarish, he grants. But he argues that “satire and the right to blaspheme are directly responsible for modernity.” The New Yorker’s George Packer, meanwhile, described the attack as “only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades,” an ideology that is engaged in “a war against … everything decent in a democratic society.” (Ironically, Packer and Goldberg also both urge us not to alienate non-extremist Muslims by using the kind of clash-of-civilizations language they otherwise engage in.)
Considering this is the rhetoric coming from the folks paid to ruminate and write, you can probably imagine the stuff coming from Congress. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who, others have noticed, bears a striking resemblance to “Tail-Gunner Joe” — proclaimed in a press statement that the murders were “a reminder of the global threat we face.” On Facebook, he said that they should be considered “an attack on us all.” For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to thread the needle, claiming that the Charlie Hebdo atrocity was an element of “a larger confrontation” that was “not between civilizations, but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.” And to no one’s surprise, multiple Republican senators argued that what happened in Paris was proof that the NSA not only should not be reformed, but should be granted more sweeping powers instead.
As Yglesias notes in the column I praised earlier, it’s depressingly easy for someone who criticizes this kind of black-and-white, saber-rattling bluster to find themselves in the awkward position of having to assure that they’re not arguing that violent jihadism is not so bad. If one person claims that a threat is all-consuming while another person claims it to be “merely” dire, it’s almost certain that some if not many in the audience will conclude — through either willful obtuseness or simple faulty logic — that their difference of opinion is due to different values. This is the very same intellectual blindspot that McCarthy exploited decades ago in order to portray anyone to the left of Robert Taft — or anyone who was ambivalent about the country’s embrace of a permanent national security state — as either sympathetic to the Soviet Union or dedicated communists themselves. And it’s the same kind of Manichean worldview that, much more recently, helped return U.S. troops to the streets of Baghdad.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, what a small group of masked men with AK-47s did in Paris this week was a horror, an atrocity, a tragedy and a crime. The pain the victims’ loved ones must be feeling right now is beyond my comprehension. When I try to imagine how the helpless journalists who were murdered on Wednesday must have felt — or when I come across the already iconic photo taken before one of the gunmen killed Ahmed Merabet, a police officer who was himself Muslim — it’s a struggle not to retch. And when I think about how, in my country, the debate over terrorism still demands some of us, if we want a fair hearing, to prove we’re as opposed to slaughter as anyone else, I struggle further still.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, January 10, 2015
“The most interesting man in politics” is what Politico Magazine crowned Rand Paul in September, when it placed him at the top of a list of 50 people to keep an eye on. And Time magazine used those exact six words, in that exact order, next to a photograph of Paul on its cover last month.
The adjective bears notice. Interesting. Not powerful. Not popular. Not even influential.
They’re saying that he’s a great character.
And that’s not the same as a great candidate.
You could easily lose sight of that, given the bonanza of media coverage that he has received, much of it over the past week and a half, as journalists eagerly slough off the midterms, exuberantly handicap the coming presidential race and no longer digress to apologize for getting into the game too soon. The game’s on, folks. From here forward, it’s all 2016 all the time.
And in order to keep the story varied and vivid, those of us chronicling it will insist on stocking it with players who break the rules and the mold, who present the possibility of twists and surprises, whose surnames aren’t Bush or Clinton, whose faces are somewhat fresh.
Cue Rand Paul. He gives good narrative.
He’s an ophthalmologist who never held office before his successful 2010 Senate race. He’s got that sporadically kooky dad. He’s a dove in a party aflutter with hawks. And he’s a gleeful nuisance, which he demonstrated when he commandeered the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours and filled Ted Cruz with filibuster envy.
All of that has made him a media sensation. But none of it would necessarily serve a quest for the Republican presidential nomination. At this point Paul is as much a political fable as a political reality, and his supposed strengths — a libertarian streak that appeals to some young people, an apparent comfort with reaching out to minorities and expanding the Republican base — pale beside his weaknesses. They’re many.
And they’re potentially ruinous.
The dovish statements and reputation are no small hurdle. No Republican nominee in recent decades has had a perspective on foreign policy and military intervention quite like Paul’s, and there’s little evidence that the party’s establishment or a majority of its voters would endorse it.
Nor is there any compelling sign that the party is moving in his direction. In the wake of Russia’s provocations and Islamic militants’ butchery, Americans just elected a raft of new Republican senators — including the military veterans Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Joni Ernst in Iowa and Dan Sullivan in Alaska — who are more aligned with John McCain’s worldview than with Paul’s, and that raises serious questions about the currency of his ideas and his ability to promote them. He gets attention. But does he have any real sway?
He himself seems to doubt some of his positions and has managed in his four short years in the Senate to flip and flop enough to give opponents a storehouse of ammunition.
Adopting a stark, absolutist stance, he initially said that he opposed all foreign aid. Then he carved out an exception for Israel.
First he expressed grave skepticism about taking on the Islamic State. Then he blasted President Obama for not taking it on forcefully enough.
His language about Russia went from pacific to truculent. His distaste for Medicare went from robust to tentative.
These adjustments suggest not just political calculation but, in some instances, amateurism. He’s a work in remarkably clumsy progress, with glimmers of recklessness and arrogance, and he often seems woefully unprepared for the national stage.
The most striking example was his assertion in an interview with Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast in September that John McCain had met and been photographed with members of the Islamic State. Paul was parroting a patently suspicious story that had pinged around the Internet, and the problem wasn’t simply that he accepted it at face value. He failed to notice that it had been thoroughly debunked, including in The Times.
At best he looked foolish. At worst he looked like someone “too easily captivated by the kinds of outlandish conspiracy theories that excite many of his and his father’s supporters,” as Mark Salter, a longtime McCain aide, wrote on the Real Clear Politics website.
Paul can be prickly and defensive to an inappropriate, counterproductive degree, as he was when dealing with accusations last year that he had used plagiarized material in speeches, an opinion article and a book.
In a story in The Times by Jim Rutenberg and Ashley Parker, Paul conceded “mistakes” of inadequate attribution. But he hardly sounded contrite. He lashed out at the people who had exposed the problem, grousing, “This is coming from haters.” And in promising to have his aides use footnotes in future materials, he said, “What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers.”
People are not going to leave him the hell alone, not when he’s being tagged in some quarters as the Republican front-runner, and his struggle to make peace with that is another liability.
But why the front-runner designation in the first place?
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, 21 percent of voters who lean Republican named Mitt Romney as their preferred candidate in a primary or caucus, while 11 percent named Jeb Bush, 9 percent Mike Huckabee and 9 percent Paul. Two other national polls don’t show any growth in support for Paul over the course of 2014, despite all the coverage of him.
In one survey of Iowa Republicans in October, he trailed not only Huckabee and Paul Ryan but also Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon. And in a survey of New Hampshire Republicans, he trailed not only Huckabee and Bush but also Chris Christie.
What really distinguishes him, apart from some contrarian positions that are red meat for ravenous journalists, is that he’s been so obvious and unabashed about his potential interest in the presidency. He’s taken more pains than perhaps anyone other than Ted Cruz to get publicity. He’s had less competition for the Republican spotlight than he’ll have in the months to come.
And that’s given him a stature disproportionate to his likely fate. It has made him, in the words of a Washington Post headline last June, “the most interesting man in the (political) world.” There it is again, that one overused superlative. Makes you wonder if he’s less a thoroughbred with stamina than a one-adjective pony.
By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 15, 2014