TV news is smoke and mirrors. We are supposed to forget that. It is presented to us so seamlessly. Here is a man we trust, an omniscient man (sometimes a woman, but not often), telling us the story of the days’ events. In many ways, it is a cultural role as old as language. Brian Williams is the storyteller, the bard. He possesses special knowledge. He imparts the oral history.
But it is an illusion. There are executive producers and senior producers and package producers and field producers and associate producers and production assistants and correspondents and camera operators and audio technicians and tape editors and graphics editors and broadcast techs and floor directors and writers. The television newsroom is spectacular chaos. I have always marveled at how much effort goes into making a product seem effortless. A live newscast is an orchestra disguised as a solo performance.
There is big money at stake. The bard is worth five years and $50 million to his employer. He is watched by over nine million people each day. No mistake can be tolerated. No apology is good enough. It is all grist for the mill, and it is a pretty impressive mill. The pressure, in the space of a week, is intolerable. The bard is a charlatan. Sir Thomas More could not have summoned such an array of charges. The network is conducting its own investigation. A rival network says it is conducting an investigation, too. Why not? Kick ’em while they’re down.
And all it took was one sentence.
Cue the video. “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq. . .” Williams is looking at us, reading us the news. The visuals cut to video, his voice continues, “. . .when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit with an RPG.”
Wait. Pause. Rewind. Observe how Williams is reading off the teleprompter (he does it very well, you hardly notice). Williams almost certainly reads his copy before he says it on the air, but he also has no reason to be suspicious about the copy for this story. He has not been accused of lying yet. Maybe he glosses over it. Of the things he is worried about that day, this story, just a guess, probably is not one of them.
Williams tells us about his friend, Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak, a 24-year army veteran, and fellow New York Rangers fan, who once guarded the lives of Williams and his crew in Iraq.
“So last night I invited him to see the Rangers and Canadiens game at Madison Square Garden,” Williams says. “It was merely a chance to be reunited, but the Rangers had other plans, as Tim realized when we looked up and saw our picture on the big screen.”
The stadium announcer proclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, during the Iraq invasion U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak was responsible for the safety of Brian Williams and his NBC news team after their Chinook helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire.”