Brian Williams should not be the story today.
He will, of course, because it seems he was caught telling an untrue story. At issue is Williams’ claim that he was aboard a helicopter that was shot down during the Iraq invasion in 2003. Apparently he and his network, NBC, have perpetuated various versions of the story, ranging from Williams being on a separate helicopter behind the one that was fired upon to him being on board the Chinook that took fire.
The story fell apart last week when Williams spoke at a New York Rangers hockey game to honor a soldier who had provided security that day in Iraq. When a video of the speech was posted to NBC’s Facebook page, a flight engineer that was aboard the helicopter in question posted, saying he didn’t remember Williams being aboard. Lance Reynolds went on to say that he remembered Williams appearing about an hour later, seeking details about what happened.
Williams will be the story today because we love to watch influential people fall. There’s nothing we love more than a good fall from grace. And some of us will be tempted to feel a certain righteous indignation because a member of the media was caught lying.
And this is why “gotcha journalism” sells. Because we’re buying.
Let me begin by saying that I am not defending Williams. Having worked in Army public affairs for four years, I have a decent understanding of the media and its tactics. I still believe in the old-school notion that the media represents the Fourth Estate: that segment of our society that wields enough political and social power to make a positive difference in this nation. I believe the media should be unbiased and honest to a fault.
More importantly, I believe the real story here is that there was a helicopter that was hit by rockets in 2003. There was a crew aboard that helicopter. And the fact that there was no one famous aboard does not somehow diminish the experience.
What if, for example, we spent a few minutes on the internet today researching the details of the actual events. What if we educated ourselves about one piece of the invasion in an attempt to understand what the members of our military endured that day. What if we spent a few minutes pondering the fact that there are service members somewhere in this nation who lived this experience. And they were most likely changed by it.
This is, in my mind, what “American Sniper” seeks to communicate to Americans: that the members of our all-volunteer military have paid a very high price for their service to this nation. They have done it without expectation of fanfare. And they have done it in the face of great political debate.
They have been injured. They have been killed. They have watched their buddies be injured and killed. They bear the lingering injuries of their service to us, and many face uncertain futures because they are changed by the war.
I have lost count of the number of my friends who have debilitating back injuries from the months of wearing body armor and heavy gear. I know many service members who have returned home physically, but who have never returned home mentally, because they left something behind in that war. I saw a young man on base yesterday, probably no more than 30 years old, escorting his kids into the elementary school with the use of a cane.
Most will never publicly complain about their physical or mental injuries, because they know many more who never made it home.
While we leisurely debate the ethical dilemma that Brian Williams finds himself in, there are American soldiers who will find themselves in harm’s way today. They are probably angry that Williams lied, but they have greater problems to solve.
They will watch videos of captive pilots being burned alive by our enemy, all while they prepare to do whatever their nation asks of them.
Resolve to do something positive with this story. Share it as many places as you can, not because I’m seeking statistics for my byline, but because the important story is the soldiers who really were there that day. And the others who lived similar stories other days in other places.
Maybe you know one of these soldiers. Maybe you are one of them. Let’s share these stories in a meager attempt to publicly acknowledge all that our military has endured. Let’s make it our business to educate ourselves, and to stop relying on the media to do it for us.
Let’s begin small and prove to our service members that, although we weren’t there and we can never know first-hand what they know, we’re trying to understand. We’re trying to comprehend the gut-wrenching things that happened. Let’s resolve not to forget about them or the price they’ve paid.
Look up the names of the men that Williams mentioned in his apology: Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael. Do something good today in honor of these men and others like them. They are the reason that Brian Williams and others are free to report the news today. They are the reason we can take a moment to share things on social media.
Brian Williams is not the story today.
What are you willing to do to combat “gotcha journalism” and start a productive conversation?