Your word is your bond
I was part of a generation that grew up hearing the nightly news end with the words “and that’s the way it is”. Each night Walter Cronkite told America what was happening around the world and we believed him.
There was no 24 hour news channel, Twitter or Facebook to tell the facts instantly. You couldn’t use the internet or check your phone for a news update. In fact, usually there was no phone unless you counted the one located in the hall so the whole family could use it.
Cronkite broke the news that President Kennedy had died. He guided the flow of information as the first man stepped on the face of the moon. He navigated the Watergate saga providing painful news even as the nation’s trust in their government fell apart. He gave daily the tragic number of young Americans killed in Vietnam.
Through all of that joy and sorrow as a nation an entire generation listened to him speak and believed his words. He was the country’s grandfather and news source. We trusted him to tell us the truth. He never let us down.
There was never another national newsman that commanded the near universal respect of Cronkite. Perhaps it was because our news began to come from other sources. Ted Turner brought 24 hour news to television, but many others followed. Satellites brought live broadcasts from around the world as if it were happening next door. The internet moved news into our computers, our tablets and phones. News of the world became instantly available right in the palm of our hand.
The competition to get the news faster than the next competitor occasionally caused some to play a little loose with the facts. We became accustomed to an occasional retraction or apology as it became more important to get the story first than to get the story right. We believed either Fox or CNN, but usually not both.
Brian Williams of the NBC Nightly News was one of the exceptions. The public believed him, admired him, and held him in the highest esteem. He was the rock star of television news and commanded respect wherever he went.
He traveled the world, often at his own peril, to bring the story home in a personal way that increased his stature, power, and reputation. Williams was my own personal “go-to” guy when I wanted context and interpretation on the events of the world.
The recent revelations of Williams stretching the truth about being on a helicopter that was under fire in Iraq have been particularly difficult for me to watch.
Williams had something the legitimate press works hard to achieve and maintain, trust. Trust is the bedrock of their profession. Trust is built on truth and no profession in the world needs that trust more than a newsman.
I believe Brian Williams to be a good and decent man. I believe his good works have benefited others and that the essence of his reporting has always been honest and forthright. I also believe that he allowed himself to embellish his own role in the events he reported. In doing so, he became part of the news whether he intended to or not.
While Williams may be held to a higher and more public standard, it cannot be denied that the respect and influence he had was based on the public’s belief that he was always telling the truth.
For men and women of integrity, it is often said that your word is your bond. Some bonds once broken are difficult to repair. This is a painful, public lesson for us all.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org