The danger Brian Williams was most in was the danger of letting his little story run away from him.
  • Monica Schipper/Getty Images for New York Comedy Festival
  • The danger Brian Williams was most in was the danger of letting his little story run away from him.

A story in Monday’s New York Times hails the photography of Spider Martin, who in 1965 was assigned by the Birmingham News to shoot pictures of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Art historian Martin Berger is quoted by the Times observing that several scenes from the new movie Selma seem to be based on Martin’s pictures. Most photos of “bloody Sunday” at the Selma bridge show “a confusing jumble of bodies,” said Berger. But Martin’s offer “a clear narrative that seems to crystallize the stakes of the larger conflict.”

In other words, Martin did with pictures what journalists strive to do with words: construct a story line out of chaos. Martin told such a strong story that decades later cinema, whose own needs for a story line far surpass journalism’s, piggybacked on Martin’s accomplishment.

Narrative clarity isn’t a sine qua non of good journalism. For instance, a long story in the Sunday magazine of the Times, “The Accusation” by Emily Bazelon, was written to leave readers not knowing what to think. To be precise, readers are left knowing that for all the many facts in Bazelon’s story—which concerns a beautiful young tech major at Stanford and her rich, older “mentor” and their romance, which was either sweet until it went sour or abusive from start to finish—what they think is far more contingent on their own predispositions than it is on any of the unreliable witnesses Bazelon has paraded before them.

But narrative clarity will never go out of fashion. So readers should be advised that every story they’re told is almost by definition an exaggeration. It’s stuff that happened embroidered with meaning, sequence raised to consequence. Ask someone to get to the point and you’re urging them to invent one.

Like Brian Williams, I took a scary helicopter ride. It was on April 29, 1975, from the courtyard behind the American embassy in Saigon to a ship of the Seventh Fleet out at sea. If I’ve never incorporated that ride into a hair-raising action tale, it’s not because I wouldn’t like to. The trouble is, it’s an embarrassing memory—the evacuation continued a long time after I was gone and the tales of derring-do belong to the journalists evacuated at night from the embassy roof by the last few choppers. (Of course, those journalists must defer to the correspondents who didn’t leave at all.)

Also, the North Vietnamese let us go. None of the helicopters was shot down. Even though we sweated bullets over the possibility the army closing on Saigon would fire a missile or two our way, that didn’t happen. So there was no moment of landing safely, hearing about the choppers that didn’t, and telling ourselves—truthfully—there but for the grace of God go I!

Brian Williams correctly told himself that by God’s grace alone he didn’t get his hair mussed. He could also tell others that, and did, and with each telling of the tale he apparently told it more efficiently. As movies with claims to truth tell us at the get-go, “some characters and incidents in this film have been combined or invented in the interests of narrative.” That’s why Williams has been defended by Doug Sterner, the “stolen valor” zealot who exposes fake war heroes. “He’s not a stolen-valor case,” Sterner told the Tribune‘s Clarence Page. “He did not claim to be somewhere that he wasn’t. He was there in a war zone, as he said. He was in harm’s way. His helicopter was not hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), but it could have been hit. They were in danger.”

It turned out the danger Williams was most in, and remained in, was the danger of letting his little story run away from him. An anchor is not just a teleprompter reader, though cynics scoff. An anchor like Williams is a national storyteller. Every story gets better with age, and usually it doesn’t matter, but a network news anchor needs to keep a tight rein on his best material. He entertains but he is not graded as an entertainer. He’s held to a loftier standard. A movie made today about Brian Williams would focus on his 2003 helicopter ride as the fateful cause of his downfall. But you know, a movie made about Williams a year ago would probably have conflated details the very same way Williams did. Putting Williams in the downed chopper would have been deemed artistically “true” and much more dramatic.