The only people accusing NBC host Brian Williams of being a liar are those who haven’t worked in the news media.
I have had the pleasure of numerous articles being written about me (for going into the missions field, for riding a bicycle across the country, for being a political candidate, and for a few other things–all legal). Usually, what wound up in print was something inaccurate. I would go back and talk to the reporter. And the answer was always the same: “I didn’t have enough space–I had to shorten what you said.”
Thus, one bicycle trip across the United States and another one that I did all through the South got written up as: “two cross-country bicycle trips.”
Cross-country, according to cyclists, is ocean-to-ocean, not just riding around one region like the South. But the reporter was in a hurry, he didn’t have the space to explain, so he shortened it to “two cross-country bicycle trips.”
It happens likewise in Hollywood. I saw the film The Longest Day several times before I finally got around to reading the book. The book by Cornelius Ryan took over a decade to research and write. The movie spanned only two hours.
Still, I was amazed at how accurate the movie was. The ONLY liberty that the film took with the book was: Some of the characters were “conflated.” That is, what TWO persons did in real life was combined as if it were done by only ONE. The character in the film played by Robert Mitchum–Gen. Manny Cota–is an example. What TWO generals did in the movie was shown to be done only by one–him.
Who would have a problem with that? The story was essentially true–it just had to be changed slightly to fit the framework of a two-hour film. Actually, the movie was 2 hours and 58 minutes. (Dare I lie, saying it was a three-hour movie?)
The same constraints exist for a speech. In the Oval Office, there is a carpet on the fringes of which are sewn famous sayings. One such saying is credited to Martin Luther King, Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Dr. King said that, but he didn’t originate that. He was actually quoting a Unitarian minister, Rev. Theodore Parker, who lived in the years before the Civil War. But in the speech, Dr. King simply gave the quote. I think he assumed that either everybody knew the quote as being famous and so he didn’t need to attribute it, or it was such a truism that he didn’t need to attribute it to the person who phrased it. Theodore Parker himself wasn’t the original. He was paraphrasing an ancient Greek philosopher who said, “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but exceedingly fine.”
How much time in a speech should Dr. King have devoted to explaining all of that?
I just saw the move 42 about Jackie Robinson. In one scene, the home plate umpire is sweeping off the plate WHILE the national anthem is still being played–one mistake in the movie–and then (a second mistake) the umpire yells, “Play ball!” while the players are just now running onto the field and his fellow umpires are still standing behind home plate.
Every person who has been trained as an umpire would balk at the scene. You don’t move during the National Anthem, and you don’t call, “Play ball” until everybody is in position and the pitcher is done with warm-ups and the batter is in the batter’s box. We could all cry “fake”! But if we understand the constraints of the film–how much time do we want to waste watching everybody get into position, the umpire waiting for the pitcher to complete warm-ups, the batter settling into the batter’s box…
The same constraints exist for television. I once had a chance to go to the police station in the real “Hill” in Pittsburgh–the place which was the inspiration for the TV series “Hill Street Blues.” I was doing a free-lance article for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I got permission from the police captain at the station in The Hill to go there and interview the officers. Did they themselves watch Hill Street Blues? What did they think of it?
One detective told me: “I never miss it! It’s unrealistic–but it’s more realistic than any of the other police shows. Nobody solves a crime in 28 minutes.”
Twenty-eight minutes, though, is all that a television program has to work with.
Now–as to Brian Williams. He was trying to make a point about the brave soldiers who saved the lives of correspondents in a helicopter which was shot down in Iraq. He said in the report that the helicopter he himself was riding in was the one shot down, while in fact he was in a chopper trailing the one that was forced to land. The truth is, both helicopters had to land because of gunfire. He was just trying to dramatize the bravery of the service members. The details, he admits, became “conflated” in telling the story.
The famous preacher whose biography I wrote–the Rev. Dr. Bruce Thielemann–used to do the same thing from the pulpit. He’d go up to the “sacred desk” and say something that never happened. For example, he would tell a story about being a passenger in a two-seater airplane. But in reality, he never had done that. He told the story in this way, however, to add drama to it.
It’s not something I myself nor other pastors would risk doing. But Dr. Thielemann did it, and he would explain that when he was a student at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, he had a famous homiletics teacher who said that this literary license was okay to do in sermon.
Putting one’s self into the story was both an abbreviation, not having to explain about somebody else that the listeners didn’t know; and a dramatization.
It’s all about how much space does a person have to write, and how much time does a person have to tell a story. It’s not about somebody lying. His apology that it was “faulty memory” which put him in the chopper that was hit by gunfire is itself a victim of needing to do things in a hurry in that medium of television news. The story wasn’t about him–it was about the soldiers.
They, of course, knew the details, and pounced on him for the inaccuracies. Anybody could do the same thing about any field in which they themselves are the experts–be it an umpire critiquing 42 or the two generals represented as one in the film D-Day. After the film Apollo 13, I interviewed Gene Kranz, the flight director, the fellow in the movie wearing the white vest and directing all of the others at their computer screens. I asked him, “How accurate was the movie?”
“Ninety-percent accurate,” he replied.
I was stunned. Hollywood usually doesn’t get a technical movie that technically accurate. But only an expert like Gene Kranz would know the inaccuracies. These “false” insertions for the sake of abbreviation or dramatization didn’t spoil the main points in the movie.
How many people who talk about the Battle of Waterloo know that not a single bullet was fired in the village of Waterloo itself? The battle was fought primarily in a hamlet in FRONT of Waterloo. But the battle was called “Waterloo” because that village was the headquarters of the Duke of Wellington. He wrote up the report from Waterloo, and that’s what he called the battle. Experts could be picky. It doesn’t affect 99 percent of the story.
What Brian Williams did isn’t the typical, underhanded tactics of the liberal media. People who say such things have already had it in for the liberal media, because they’ve already had it in for liberals. These critics bend everything that they hear or read as an attack on liberals. They are hardly the ones to cry about “truth and accuracy.”
Which gets back to the famed preacher, Dr. Thielemann. He was bothered one time about being criticized in an editorial in a newspaper in the town of McKeesport, where he was pastoring a congregation. Dr. Thielemann did what he did often when bothered. He talked to his father. His father remarked, “Half of the people who get the newspaper won’t read the editorial. Half of the people who read it won’t believe it. Half of the people who believe it won’t remember it. And the half that remember it–can’t stand you, anyway!”