The angel of death comes quickly. It knocks on doors for the souls of men. But it also kicks in the door for careers. The angel knocked the breath out of Brian Williams’ career last week, hence the need for an obituary.
Last week, Brian Williams’ life was the picture of social and economic health. Who would not want to be in his shoes? He has a wife and two good-looking adult children. His name is a familiar one for millions of US households. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams is my venue of choice for a recap of the events of the day. I still tune into the programme. US citizens are now greeted with Lester Holt as a temporary anchor for the chair. He is doing a decent job considering the media meteor crater left by his predecessor.
It is widely reported that two months ago Brian Williams negotiated a $ 50 million contract for anchoring NBC Nightly News for the next five years. Yes, life was grand! However, things change in an instant. The man is now seated at home without a job and any discernible support from his professional colleagues. There is a distancing from the man, like the grateful sigh of relief when a leper packs his belongings and quietly shoves off to unknown locale. The reality of a six-month suspension and the distinct prospect of a complex fight over the remains of his NBC estate portend a bleak future in broadcast journalism.
Mr Williams did not take note of the signs of his creeping illness. Ilustramentum is a disease that seeks out the weakness of a particular host. This host is known by several names: broadcast anchor, war correspondent, news editor, author and journalist. However, our definite weakness of the flesh is embellishment. We imagine we must dress things up and make them ornate to keep our coveted audience. Stories are never good enough. We have to add a bit of spice. Ilustramentum, embellishment, lying. The disease affects the many and not the few.
When this particular illness afflicts us there is an opportunity for a return to health. But that opportunity only exists during the early stages of the disease. Unchecked, Ilustramentum undergoes metastasis and then it is too late for a cure. Brian Williams cannot turn the clock back on his actions but his fall from grace allows us to reflect (once again) on the mechanics of writing and speaking from an ethical core.
Perhaps the most subtle of mistakes occur at the beginning point of Ilustramentum. It can be easy to forget that our writing must evoke the sentiment we feel, not the sentiment we wish to evoke. Let that little thought sink in a bit. Brian Williams was a war correspondent with a story to tell. He heard the sound of the rotors of the helicopter. He experienced the biological endorphin release as the pilot skillfully maneuvered the military bird across a vast desert terrain. He was invited into the brotherhood of men to convey the rigours of war to a predominantly civilian audience. However, the delivery of his report needed a little boost. Self-aggrandisement stepped onto centre stage. Mr Williams invented a tale of personal danger. His story of a harrowing experience on an army helicopter that was fired upon during the Iraq invasion raised his stature. He lied to evoke a response from his audience. And, as the years went by, Mr Williams both modified and expanded his version of a non-existent event so that merit was received where none was due.
Any journalist who consistently seeks to evoke a response other than the response personally felt is in the danger zone of embellishment. Ilustramentum is the close relative of another disease that is target-specific for journalists. It is called manipulation. This word comes from the Latin word manus or hand. The dictionary definition is “to move, arrange, operate or control by the hands or another body part or by mechanical means, especially in a skillful manner.” Journalists can use the pen or the tongue to rearrange the facts of a story to gain operational control of a story they wish to convey. Muslims understand the concept of the pen being created first to write the destiny of all mankind. However, the human pen and tongue can also be used to manipulate facts to construct the false legend of a life. Nobody wants to hear a woman talk about the thousands of meals she has cooked or the tonnes of dirty laundry neatly converted to clean items of clothing. But get a man to yak about surviving an RPG attack on a helicopter in a war zone? We will line up like a chain of fools for the grandeur of that kind of a tale.
Brian Williams lied about his Iraq war experience to create a profile of courage in the face of danger. It should have been enough to merely report the news from a war zone. It should have been enough to let the world see the conflict through the eyes of the men configured along the front lines. For Mr Williams that story was not enough. The disease of Ilustramentum entered his soul. And now it has taken his very breath.
The internal investigation continues at NBC. However, small leaks of information cast into doubt other stories he has reported in the past. His report of the physical observation of a corpse floating in the floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina has been cast disputed by individuals who were also present at the time. A tale of childhood valour is also being examined. Mr Williams claims to have saved a puppy from a burning home. Nobody seems to remember the event and there is no record of corroboration for his heart-felt vignette.
Obituary: Here lies Brian Williams. Beloved when larger than life, rejected when found to be afflicted with the most common malady known to man.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org