Years ago I took a role on JAG as a Naval Seal facing court martial for hitting a Congressional candidate who fabricated his military honors. I was an actor paid to play a part. When former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams claimed that he faced danger that, in fact, he was no where near and endured by troops protecting him, he was a journalist who lied. When his lie was outed, I wasn’t so much upset that he exaggerated as I was upset by what he exaggerated.
I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in life but as a graduate of the Naval Academy who served 22 years, I can’t even fathom telling a lie that diminishes the sacrifice of our brave servicemen and women.
Brian Williams must atone for lying; and a pre-taped interview with NBC Today Show’s Matt Lauer that ran Friday –in which he can start over as many times as it takes to get his script perfect–doesn’t count.
Lying about activities in a combat zone disrespects our soldiers who face real danger every day and insults the memory of service members killed in action. Brian Williams lied. He said his helicopter was forced down after being hit by a RPG during the invasion of the Iraq. In fact, his Chinook was an hour behind the three that took fire. Other fabrications by the anchor have since come to light, but it should have taken only that one for him to have been fired. Here’s why.
There’s something called “stolen valor.” Wearing a military decoration you didn’t earn is a federal crime. Medals are earned by courage, sacrifice, and blood spilt. It’s not just that Williams lied. It’s that he lied and appropriated the experience of servicemen and women whose job it was to protect him.
When Brian Williams goes to Iraq, he gets the celebrity treatment –watching gunfights from the comforts of a dark, air-conditioned editing room. The multi-millionaire’s biggest war-zone sacrifice is drinking Keurig instead of Starbucks. His wartime experience in no way resembles the brave journalists who risked their lives covering that war, some of whom are in still in prison, others of whom were killed. By lying, Williams insulted their memory—his colleagues—who are real journalists.
I repeat, when Brian Williams Chinook went up that day, it was an hour behind the lead three. Let’s think for a moment about the soldiers on lead. They’re probably in their late teens, early 20s; rank slip of private; earning a salary less than 10% of Williams’. They know the hiss of gunfire. Some have watched their buddies die. They haven’t seen their families in months. They know they might come home crippled, physically or psychologically, and might not receive the care they need. But they do it. For us. They’re out front, the riskiest spot in the formation, ensuring the celebrity an hour back is safe. In layman’s terms, that’s called taking a bullet for someone.
And what did Brian Williams do to thank them?
Give them any of his money? No.
Thank them by name? No.
Meet their parents? No.
Okay, that is a little unfair. It wasn’t his job to do that. His job—the reason he makes $10 million a year– was to share their story—to remind America of the sacrifices these brave young men and women make every day. But instead of sharing their story, he stole it–either to advance his career, boost his celebrity, boost the ratings, who knows. He stole credit. He played soldier.
When you disrespect the sacrifice of so many by claiming it as your own, you cannot expect to reclaim your credibility via a friendly, controlled, pre-recorded interview conducted by the same network whose business interests are furthered the better you look.
Brian Williams played soldier in Iraq – he got to claim all the drama and excitement with little of the risk those who actually serve face daily. A lot of us do that as kids. We run around with invisible rifles, throw stone grenades, and Army-crawl through the flowerbed out back. But war isn’t a game. It’s very real and very dangerous. And that’s why only 1% of Americans are courageous enough to step forward and serve. Brian Williams isn’t in that 1%. By taking credit for the sacrifice these kids make every day to protect us, and very literally, protect him, he’s lost the privilege to call himself a journalist.
That’s why his canned apology to Matt Lauer isn’t enough. Coming on the heels of the botched interview of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP director, this was a terrible week for the credibility of NBC News.
Montel Williams is an Emmy-award winning television personality who formerly hosted the “Montel Williams Show” for 17 seasons. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he is a fierce advocate for active and retired military and also a noted healthcare and disability rights advocate. Follow him on twitter @montel_williams