I’ve been asked a few times for my opinion on whether or not what Brian Williams, and just recently, Bill O’Reilly, did was wrong by allegedly “altering” facts in news stories. Now, I must confess, neither Brian Williams nor Bill O’Reilly (nor the moral obligations of journalists vs. enterainers) are much on my personal radar screen. As for watching the news, I believe that Bob Dylan was correct when he said, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” And certainly when you do need a “weatherman”, media that covets and survives on followers, is not my “go to” source. Obviously, when major events occur I do turn to the News networks. However, it’s not, as I have said, my modus operandi. That being said, I was intrigued at first as to what all the fuss was about with Brian Williams. It seemed to me that he did what pretty much everyone who lives does at some point or another – he over-exaggerated the story for the story-telling excitement or to elevate his own importance. However, digging in a bit and discussing the events with friends I realized that indeed, a news broadcaster is responsible to deliver the news as it occurred. I think that is especially so when one wears the crown of “the most trusted name in news.”
I happen to have a lifelong friend who served in the government at pretty high levels for decades. He was on first name basis with most of the major players. He has retired from service but not from our friendship. He is, in fact, one of my most trusted go to sources. Despite our often being on the opposite sides of the fence on political discussions, I am aware that I remain mostly disinterested and under-educated in regard to things political. He, on the other hand, is highly educated and experienced with regard to politics and able to assess things in the light of truth rather than party lines. When we were emailing about Brian Williams he made a very insightful observation. From his vantage point it seems that reporters are always following the stories in which other people are the stars. My distillation of what he said: many of them have a kind of celebrity envy and want to be the focus of a story rather than “only” an observer. By telling the helicopter story as he did, Brian Williams made himself the focus of a story. So, in this case, the “gilding of the lily” was a violation of his moral compact between his “most trusted” promise and the large part of America that is his audience.
Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, makes no pretense of being “fair and balanced.” He is not a journalist, he is an entertainer. Personally, the few times I have watched him I have found him to be drunk with his own self and power and (to me) he appeared to “live” on a bully pulpit. I never cared a word about what he had to say, it was more that I found his personality toxic and obnoxious and therefore I never found him entertaining. To me he is too filled with himself and drinks that fullness at the expense of his guests. But then again, I don’t like pro wrestling either. This is not a statement as to his politics only to the type of person he appears (to me) to be. (Go to a shrink – you get shrunk.)
That being said, O’Reilly, as an entertainer, is not held to the same moral covenant as a news broadcaster. I guess he probably will escape with no Fox News induced repercussions as he is not held to Fox News’ “fair and balanced” tag line. He is, however, guilty of exactly what Brian Williams is guilty of: he lied in order to become part of the story, and to inflate his already overblown ego. Many of the details in his account of the story fall short of the truth. And there are countless recorded scenes of his abrasive bully style as well as his self-aggrandizing over exaggerations. Still, as with Brian Williams, he violates his sacred obligation. After all he claims his show is “the No Spin Zone.”