Brian Williams should leave the air for good; an apology isn’t enough
Brian Williams announced this week that he would be taking himself off the air, temporarily. This was his concession after being caught in a lie that he was in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while in Iraq in 2003.
He didn't mis-speak, it didn't slip out accidentally, this was a lie he has been telling, publicly, for years.
Then, in the midst of this disgrace, it also came to light that he lied again in 2005 while covering Hurricane Katrina. He reported that he saw bodies floating by in the flood waters. Something that would have been impossible since he had been reporting from an area of New Orleans with barely any flooding, let alone enough water to float a body through.
I say: Why take yourself off the air temporarily? Go ahead and make it permanent.
His statement to NBC simply said, "In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions."
He isn't a politician or public figure from whom we expect lies (and are pleasantly surprised when we get the occasional honesty and truth). He also is not someone for whom an apology will suffice. Williams is a renowned, well-respected, very well-paid ($10 million annually), award-winning journalist who, without his authenticity, integrity and incorruptibility, becomes worthless to us.
In an era of infotainment, politically skewed news stations and satirical news reportage, there are very few news outlets and very few journalists who disseminate impartial facts and truthful information.
The very principles of journalism are based in truth-telling and, according to Columbia University’s J-School and the Pew Research Center, "journalism's first obligation is to the truth."
What does it say when, at the apex of your career, you knowingly misappropriate a significant and monumental story as your own? It says that we can no longer trust you as a journalist. And if you are the top of what your industry has to offer, it doesn't say much about your industry.
Mr. Williams, as a representative of what young journalists should aspire to be, you are no inspiration.
As a research psychologist, I am trained to look towards empirical data to inform my decisions. If I do that in the case of Brian Williams, I find that we would be better off if a woman replaced him. Several studies have demonstrated that men lie more often than women do when there is monetary gain. Here we have 10 million reasons to lie. Let's get a woman in that chair. Women lie less often and when they do it is rarely to self-aggrandize.
Other studies have found that not just the frequency of lie telling, but the content and what we lie about, also varies by gender. Women are more likely to lie about others in order to make those individuals feel better about themselves ("Wow, you look like you've lost some weight!"), whereas men are more likely to lie about themselves to seem more important than they really are ("My helicopter just took rocket fire").
If that is indeed the case, then this may have been Brian Williams' "Do you know who I am?" celebrity moment. One hundred percent ego-driven and designed to set himself apart from the fray. In this moment he stops being just an anchor sitting at a desk reading a teleprompter, but instead a brave 'war hero journalist' who survived a military action and risked his life to bring us this story (remember those videos of Dan Rather in the battlefields of Vietnam?). He wants us to know how much he risked to get the Big Story. Well, then how much does he actually respect us if he chooses to lie instead?
When Tom Brokaw, a lion of the journalism community, calls for Williams' dismissal it's a sure sign that this is more than just a gaffe. It calls attention to Williams' constant need to insert himself in the mediascape by appearing on the Daily Show, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and a host of other prime time entertainment programs. Since he no longer takes his job seriously, why should we? Let's get a journalist at that Nightly News anchor desk who respects their audience and respects the truth. I think Dateline can spare Andrea Canning for an hour a night, don't you?