The most astute reaction to news anchor Brian Williams’s claim that he “misremembered” being present inside a US Army helicopter when it was shot down in Iraq can be found in a meme now ricocheting through the Twitter-verse. It features a picture of Lord of the Rings’s Boromir beneath the text, “One does not simply ‘misremember’ being shot down by RPG fire in Iraq” — a play on the character’s oft-quoted warning against walking into Mordor.
It’s too bad Williams never got the memo, because the disgraced journalist and managing editor of NBC News has become social media’s clown du jour. The hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers trolls his knack for telling yarns by placing him at the scene of history’s most recognizable events. “The food at the last supper was pretty terrible, so I ordered pizza,” he brags from within da Vinci’s famous painting, where he’s pictured crashing Jesus’s final meal. In the past few days, Twitter users have sited Williams everywhere from JFK’s convertible to Tupac Shakur’s passenger seat, making the question of where he was or wasn’t ever more complex.
Williams is only the latest in a painfully long line of fallen journalists who have twisted the facts, including The New York Times‘s Jayson Blair, USA Today‘s Jack Kelley, The New Republic’s Stephen Glass, and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke. But unlike Williams, none of them have had to face up to the digital crowd. In recent years the time honored tradition of roasting public figures — the delight of every newspaper cartoonist — has become increasingly democratic. Might the laughing masses be enough of a deterrent to future would-be fibbers?
Let’s hope the conversation doesn’t stop there. The absurdity of the Williams debacle shows just how greatly we need thoughtful and analytic criticism to address how the media slid to a place where the most recognizable face in news thought he could get away with a lie and did so for 12 years. At a time when journalists around the world are being murdered for telling the truth — as former Washington Post writer Betty Medsgert noted more than a decade ago, an observation that holds true today — serious self-examination is in order. In the meantime, though, have a laugh.