Media Baiting: Socio/Political

Brian Williams fabricated a story about being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq.

It’s strange, but it’s the truth.  One of NBC’s top news anchors just, out of the blue, misremembered the fact that his brief sojourn on a helicopter in Baghdad was not actually viciously interrupted by RPG and AK-47 fire, just as your average Joe might forget something on his grocery list. In fact, as was revealed by the soldier that spilled these scandalous beans, Williams’s helicopter wasn’t even near the helicopters that were under fire.

His lies were promptly publicized and, as is routine, he was instantaneously eaten alive by ferocious media piranhas. Gawker made the claim in one of its articles that Williams’s career is now “slowly imploding,” which is pretty fair to say, as practically every journalistic source has some sort of piece ridiculing his wild helicopter duress fantasy.

While it’s always fun to watch a celebrity goliath slowly crumble under the weight of the collective jeering of the public peasantry, in the grand scheme of things, Williams’s lie isn’t really all that big of a deal. Sure, Williams pretending that he was shot at in a helicopter to sound cool is pretty crummy, but at least he didn’t hurt anybody with it.

It’s an unfortunate truth of journalism that influential people oftentimes intentionally warp the truth and their actions end up creating dramatic real-life consequences. One of the most prominent examples of this comes from the story of George Tiller, a doctor whose clinic performed late-term abortions for women that were pregnant with babies that had fatal birth defects.

Tiller was constantly under fire from anti-abortion groups (literally; at one point, his clinic was firebombed), but he faced even greater opposition when Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly launched a brutal campaign against him. O’Reilly did everything he could think of: he called Tiller a Nazi, equated Tiller’s actions to those of al-Qaeda, called Tiller a fascist, created the fun-rhyming moniker “Dr. Tiller the Baby Killer” and said that Tiller was a proponent of child molestation. Somehow.

And then somebody murdered Tiller.

The strange thing here is that O’Reilly gave an apology on his show and … that was it. No outcry and no stern reprimands. His aggressive dishonesty indirectly got a doctor killed and it was as if nobody cared.

Comparing the above two scenarios opens up an interesting dialogue. Brian Williams is known for straightforward news reporting, but when he tells a ridiculous yet overall harmless lie, the media blares its klaxons and his career nosedives.  When Bill O’Reilly, whose career is based mostly on sensationalism, tells an overblown and relatively dangerous series of lies, the public at large remains indifferent.

It’s not necessarily that O’Reilly has some sort of golden get-out-of-jail free card. It’s the fact that he has a background of outspoken hyperbole, so when he makes claims like the ones he made about Dr. Tiller, people don’t really give it too much thought. Think of it like dealing with an overbearingly bigoted relative: you’ve learned to roll your eyes at them but tend not to admonish their behavior because you’ve begrudgingly grown used to it.

This kind of backwards system is only allowed to exist thanks to the way journalism in the United States operates. O’Reilly and his ilk are given a pass because people are already aware of their antics and thus pay them less attention.  However, when a big name slips into some hot water, it becomes a month-long spectacle; Americans love a messy train crash and celebrity trains have double the number of passenger cars.  Despite the benefits of bringing public attention to potentially-dangerous fabrications, they’re allowed to fall to the wayside in the wake of bigger, more scandalized stories that bring in more viewership and readership.

While I am completely hypocritically enjoying watching Williams fumble with his myriad conflicting apologies, it’s also frustrating that his career is deflating thanks to what is ultimately harmless dishonesty in an industry full of tangible, detrimental dishonesty. Don’t get me wrong, lying as a journalist is a cardinal sin and should not go unpunished. But should a man really lose his livelihood over something that hurts only his own credibility when other people are getting away with saying things of a much more dire magnitude?

 

Evan Siegel is a first-year literary journalism major.  He can be reached at ejsiegel@uci.edu.