“Sorry dude, I don’t remember you”

Baby boomers have witnessed many changes over the years. Today, we are witnessing a pillar of our society being tested and questioned — the credibility of nightly TV news with allegations that a popular anchorman stretched the truth. BoomerCafé’s David Henderson, himself a former television network correspondent, shares some thoughts even before the dust has settled.

There are few more stark reminders that we baby boomers are getting older than when the Grammy Awards are handed out at a gala that dominates the news, and I’ve never heard of any of the singers … and don’t care.

NBC News anchorman Brian Williams in Iraq.

NBC News anchorman Brian Williams in Iraq.

Even more troubling is the shattering of confidence in the evening news on network television when America’s leading anchorman admits that he “misremembered” what did or did not happen when he covered a story.  What kind of a word is “misremembered?”

“Misremembered” has quickly become part of our popular lexicon as another word for distorting facts, dramatizing events or just plain lying.

At the core of anchorman Brian Williams’ problems is his accuracy in reporting.  In 2003 and during the intervening years, he has reported and apparently embellished a story that a helicopter he was in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. His versions of that story have gotten more heroic and dangerous-sounding. He also reported events that happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina that might never have happened.

The current internal probe by NBC News of whether or not anchorman Williams distorted the facts is equally tainted. As veteran media watcher and baby boomer David Carr of The New York Times observes, “indeed, the investigation at NBC will be led internally, by the head of investigations, who depends on Mr. Williams to make room for his work on the newscast.”

Things started going downhill for Williams when a crew member of a U.S. helicopter that was fired upon in Iraq in 2003, posted on the NBC News Facebook page, “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft,” instantly bringing into question Williams’ credibility. Williams has been telling stories as if he was on the chopper that took fire. He wasn’t.

Walter Cronkite of CBS News.

Walter Cronkite of CBS News.

Columnist Maureen Dowd, also of The New York Times, wrote, “Social media — the genre that helped make the TV evening news irrelevant by showing us that we don’t need someone to tell us every night what happened that day — (has been) gutting the institution further.” Social media tends to expose lies quickly.

When we boomers were growing up, we turned on the evening news to watch the likes of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Roger Mudd and David Brinkley bring us the news of the day. We trusted what they reported. All of the anchor people of that era had earned their stripes as accomplished reporters, covering wars and world events. CBS News, where I worked during the 1970s, was known for its high journalistic standards. It was the same at NBC and ABC News.  No one compromised trust, no one cut corners, no one “misremembered” because we took notes. No one told tall tales to spotlight their heroism as a journalist.

David Henderson

David Henderson

Things changed in the 1980s. Network news divisions were put under the entertainment chiefs of the networks because they saw that high news ratings equated to top dollar advertising revenue and big profits. News became more like entertainment, and network anchor people were selected more for good looks and charm on camera than journalistic accomplishments.

Just like the Grammy Awards, I switch on cable or network news shows and watch fluffy entertainment stories. And I remember what Buckminster Fuller wrote, “I’m a stranger in a strange land.”

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  1. I’m with you, David. “Misremembered”?! Telling the truth means never having to remember what you said.

    What Williams seems to have “conflated” is his ego (i.e. his need to appear heroic) vs reality.

    There’s much more to criticize regarding today’s news industry and how much of what we, the pubic hear from “news” casters, and how much we can trust what they say is true. It strikes at the heart of our society, democracy–and the notion of a free press. Jefferson must be rolling in his grave. Thanks for moving the conversation forward.

  2. I think Williams’ “reporting” in New Orleans on Katrina might be an even more egregious slap at truth in journalism. Wonder why this “story” has not been more rigorously pursued?

  3. Thank you David. It is unfortunate that we have arrived at a time and place where you needed to write this post. But I am glad you did! It is so obvious now that professionalism, principles, and valuing the truth, have been replaced by the need for fame, greed money, and being first. The truth and facts have been sidelined for ratings and and financial rewards.

  4. I will be sorry to see Williams go. If he does go. He should probably blame it on age and stress, take the hit, and stay on the job. The American public has an even worse memory than he apparently does. In a year or so we’ll have forgotten that it ever happened.

    1. Dear Roz,

      Journalists – whether covering wars or city hall – are trained to different disciplines. They take notes. They write down events and conversations. They question discrepancies. They document through words and images. They are not supposed to inject ourselves into the story. They work to remain impartial and truthful.

      What’s been overlooked in the case of Williams is that he was accompanied by other NBC News staffers, including a producer and cameraman. I can only suspect that they are being questioned by investigators because they would otherwise never speak out or question the perspective or a national anchorman, their boss.

      I suspect we will be watching a painful and public unraveling of the reporting skills of Brian Williams. As an anchorman, I think he is good.

      I agree with you about the American public. Some think Canada won the Civil War and that Bono is vice president of the U.S.

      Thanks for commenting.


  5. Your story is so right on, David. I, too, experienced that “stark reminder” about getting older last year while I watched Grammys being given to entertainers I never heard of. I was also dismayed to realize the music performed that night didn’t appeal to me at all.

    You’re also correct about the reporting of “news” being transformed into “entertainment” over the years. Why else would we know anything about the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, etc., etc.? Such news I can gladly do without. Then, there’s the “dark side” of the news we’re constantly subjected to: the latest political scandal, terrorist act/threat, murder, mayhem and so on. More news I can do without. So, the big question is: where is the medium in which we can learn about the important issues of our time that need to be addressed instead of who wore what gown to the latest meaningless gala?

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