By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Two times in my career, I really felt threatened while on the hunt for a story.
The first was in the mid-’80s during a union dispute near the Lock and Dam 26 construction site at Alton. I’d gotten a tip that a bunch of Operating Engineers were gearing to walk off the job and were gathered at an encampment on the West Alton, Mo., side. When I got there they were none too pleasant. One of them was nasty enough to even question my family heritage. As a crowd gathered, I didn’t stick around for polite conversation, but I did end up getting a story.
The second clash came a few years later, when a group of neighbors convened outside an Alton junkyard to protest the operations going on inside. Green as I was, I marched into the place and started taking pictures — never mind that it was private property. The owner asked me if I wanted the camera cord wrapped around my neck.
After some fast shuffling, I got the pictures, the story and an interview with the owner. And I vowed to slightly soften my bulldog approach.
I love Memory Lane. It may be self-serving, but I remember the above details like they were yesterday.
And I thought about my past adventures even as I watched NBC newsman Brian Williams being shot down by some of his own.
Every reporter I’ve ever met loves to regale others with his “I remember” news tales, and most of us have stretched them a bit in the retelling. But I never saw anyone stretch a tale quite like Williams did with his recollection of being hit by enemy fire during a 2003 Iraq helicopter mission. Given such an event would be among the most horrifying of experiences, there is simply no question: If you’d lived through it, you’d never forget it. And you wouldn’t repeat it incorrectly.
Yet, Williams misremembered the tale time and again through the years before being called to task by members of the mission with whom he’d flown. Turns out it was a helicopter some distance ahead of his that had taken on fire, not his. After being called out, Williams backtracked on the story. But the damage was done. And it only got worse.
The news veteran was suspended for six months after other questionable tales began surfacing. Investigators are checking his accounts of being embedded with Seal Team 6; of being present at the Brandenburg Gate the night the Berlin Wall fell; of seeing a body float past his hotel during Hurricane Katrina; and of shaking hands with Pope John Paul II, thanks to a Secret Service tip.
Might he also have been at Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963?
Williams has no reason to lie about or exaggerate any portion of his career. Most of us followed his stories as he was experiencing them. He was among the best.
But now, a proud career has been shot down in a massive pile of conflation.
Call the recollections misrepresentations, small fibs or bold lies, America should expect more of its most trusted news anchors.
As I write this, I must give fair share to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who is denying allegations that he, too, trumped up stories. That tale is still unfolding.
What a lesson these examples offer for everyone who embellishes a resume — and who assumes no one is going to notice.
In Williams’ case, I don’t see him ever returning to a level of professional prominence. He’s got a heap of explaining to do simply to be readmitted to the ranks of reliable newsmen.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal.