Back during the Vietnam War, CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite was judged in the polls to be "the most trusted man in America" for his straightforward nightly reports. When he went to Vietnam and returned saying the war was "mired in stalemate," it was widely reported that President Lyndon Johnson had observed, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America" — or some variation thereof.
The problem was there was never any evidence that LBJ, in Texas at the time attending a dinner, ever heard the Cronkite broadcast or made the comment. But the story has lived, more as a verification of Cronkite's unshakable credibility than of Johnson's alleged defeatist observation.
The confession of NBC news anchor Brian Williams that he lied — or as he put it "conflated" — about being aboard an Army helicopter shot down in Iraq in 2003 has revived the issue of a prominent television journalist's credibility, especially one sitting almost as an icon in one of today's coveted network anchor chairs.
Mr. Williams had repeated the account on various occasions, most recently at a public event honoring a soldier friend. The claim caught the attention of former crew member on a chopper that had been shot down. He messaged Mr. Williams via Facebook, saying "I don't remember you being on my aircraft." Mr. Williams in reply owned up that had confused the two flights and apologized.
Such is the price of error in a very public job in the NBC anchor chair, for which Mr. Williams recently re-upped for five years for $10 million a year. To his credit along with the other top anchors, David Muir of ABC and Scott Pelley of CBS, they all often leave the anchor desk to see for themselves the news they report nightly. When they do, they take with them the standard set by Walter Cronkite, and woe to he who slips in absolute truth-telling.
It's one thing for reporters engaging in a bit of embellishment among themselves at an after-hours saloon about stories they've covered; it happens all the time. But television anchors too often have the reputation of being a bit too full of themselves, though not always deserved. They can't afford lapses, others before them have learned.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, CBS anchor Dan Rather paid a high price for depending on flawed information that Republican nominee George W. Bush had dodged combat in Vietnam by joining the Air National Guard. Mr. Rather lost his CBS job, though another very thorough investigation by the Boston Globe made a credible case that Mr. Bush had indeed pulled strings and worked in a Republican political campaign while in the Air Guard.
Telling white lies is not an unheard-of offense in the highest avenues of American politics. Ronald Reagan loved telling reporters, including this one, about how the armed services were desegregated after Pearl Harbor when a black cook came out of a his ship's galley, grabbed a machine gun and shot down a Japanese attack plane. The fact was that President Harry Truman racially integrated the armed services in 1948, three years after the end of World War II.
The Gipper, who served in Hollywood during the war and never left the United States, later boasted to an Israeli official that as a military photographer he had visited Nazi concentration camps after the war. But he never told his fibs from a network anchor chair.
On other occasions, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of being subjected to sniper fire in Bosnia, and Vice President Joe Biden once observed that his helicopter had been fired at when others said it was routinely landed because of a snowstorm. And so it goes.
Brian Williams figures to ride out this latest media snowstorm, but not only the NBC anchor takes a hit in an episode such as this one. Credibility is the lifeline of all journalism, especially in this era of social media in which professional watchdogs on news desks are getting pink slips in economy-minded newsrooms everywhere.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.