Levees Not War
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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend

02/6/15

WilliamsKatrina

Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).

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With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)

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