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“The Media’s Military Malady”: Brian Williams’ Lies Are Symbolic Of The Media’s Too-Cozy Relationship With The Military

Brian Williams has come a cropper – a useful English expression for falling off your high horse. The NBC News anchor exposed a malady of the American news media, because he had the worst case of it. Deftly told tales of danger flared up on news and comedy shows, even on rival CBS and at a Rangers hockey game. More than any other leading anchor, the preening Williams acted like he was in show business. And he’s clearly smitten with the military, taking a cue from his predecessor Tom Brokaw, who wrote “The Greatest Generation,” the blockbuster book about the World War II generation. In peacetime, Brokaw started a process of glowing (retro) war coverage with his valedictory book.

Williams furthered that fawning trend when he took over the chair as the “NBC Nightly News” standard-bearer. But the stakes were higher, because suddenly, it was wartime. The longest wars in our history, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were upon us. And all the world was a stage for his stand-ups.

Since 9/11, Williams and many in the media became too cozy and close with the military. I mean, literally, too close, sharing fatigues, meals and living space. But the volunteer military has a job to do and so do people in the press covering wars. They are best kept at a distance. In the Vietnam War, the press was confrontational and skeptical of the Pentagon – and properly so. The daily press briefing was dubbed “the Five O’Clock Follies.” Reporters knew the government was telling lies every day. The two Iraq wars were covered like sporting events at first, with broadcast and print media cheerleading the invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago. The stories they missed on the job have filled many books, such as Thomas Ricks’ “Fiasco.”

The broadcast media seemed happy to befriend the military and hang out in tanks and helicopters with them for visual color. It became cool to “embed” in the desert – an approach the Pentagon encouraged and put into place with the brief first Gulf War. Thus the Pentagon shrewdly seduced the media in an “embed” embrace. Some correspondents who embedded died along the way, including David Bloom of NBC News and Michael Kelly of the The New Republic. It all seemed futile, being along for a ride. In a dusty foreign desert, it’s hard to break great stories about people whom you think are protecting your life.

“Four birds in the desert.” Williams used such vivid language to describe being aboard one of four Chinook helicopters as the Iraq War was getting underway in 2003. One “bird” was hit. He tells the story well, except it wasn’t true. He spoke on a comedy show about it and tried to hide his false pride at surviving an “RPG” attack, as if everyone talks that way. The helicopter Williams was on did not come under fire, but what’s the difference between friends? Williams rubbed shoulders with soldiers in uniform, and perhaps felt he could share their valor.

But he was supposed to be one of us – the press. To be clear, I worked at CBS News as my first journalism job. In network news, I’ve seen the best in action and perhaps I judge Williams too harshly. His survival shall largely depend on ratings. Whatever happens, the cautionary note here: A string of tall tales went on for years unchecked by Williams’ peers at the best networks and newspapers, as well as the usual chorus of media critics.

Ironically, a respected military newspaper finally turned Williams in for his on-air fibbing. Travis Tritten, a Stars and Stripes reporter, said discontent had been building up for years with Williams’ rash storytelling. “We were there to give them a voice,” he said, referring to those in the armed forces and veterans. A military newspaper did the work and got the story straight. The lines between civilian and military became bright and clear here. For that, we in the Fourth Estate should be grateful and humbled.

 

By: Jamie Stiehm, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, February 9, 2015

February 10, 2015 Posted by | Brian Williams, Journalism, U. S. Military | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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