When longtime news anchor Brian Williams admitted that his helicopter was never forced down by gunfire in Iraq, or whatever version of the story he told before Coptergate, I was not surprised.
Many, many foreign correspondents, at least in war zones, lie.
They tell personal war stories in between battle assignments or in bars after filing reports or photos. And the whoppers grow with each telling and retelling. These are adrenaline junkies, after all, who thrive on what’s known as the bang-bang, and they are disquieted by the quiet back home.
So they fill the gaps with relived near-misses and escapades. Of ‘AIDS water’ in Haiti or sly gun toting in the Middle East, with scarce mention of riot notes cribbed from radio reports in Mexico and on-the-street interviews with fabricated locals, written from the safety of hotel rooms. l know because I worked with these people. Some too close for comfort. There are those who are highly ethical, and many who risk their lives daily. Some journalists, especially lately, are kidnapped. Others die.
And yet others’ careers were deep-sixed by fibs. As I note in a chapter on ethics in Literature on Deadline, “Jack Kelley, a star foreign correspondent at USA Today, used editors’ inability to check quotes or facts abroad to fabricate sections of at least eight stories, including a 2000 article in which he made up a story about a Cuban woman dying as she fled the island by boat, according to USA Today’s internal investigation.” Kelley, then in his early 40s, was forced to resign in 2004.
Now that frontline combat reportage reveals its seamier side, hosts of commentators lay waste to Williams and what he represents. Who’s throwing rocks? Check out this insightful confession from sparky writer Anne Lamott on Facebook.
Not to absolve Williams’ actions–he was rightfully suspended without pay by NBC yesterday–but there’s a whole culture of macho story toppers out there. What, I might say, got us into Iraq in the first place? WMD, anyone?
Just imagine, if you will, hanging out with gin-soaked war correspondents during the Spanish Civil War. At least Ernest Hemingway, who was front and center, turned his tales into fiction.