Many people were surprised or shocked over the recent revelations that NBC anchor Brian Williams lied about his experiences on a helicopter in Iraq. I was not. The nature of TV news is to stage drama. It’s got to look and sound good on the screen for better ratings. Williams got caught up in his own fantasy: too many years, perhaps, of reporting the news.
When Williams interviewed my family in our home, he similarly staged a false drama in order to sell a story. And in that process, he betrayed us and his viewers.
Brian Williams interviewed our family in the late of summer 2004 about our son Koby’s murder. We sat on the nubby sofas in our sunroom in Tekoa, in the West Bank, and he told us that he had been in the neighborhood — in Greece for the summer Olympics — and that is how he came to be in Israel. I looked at his pressed pants, his shiny black shoes, his clean shirt: impeccable.
Tom Brokaw was still the anchor of NBC news but I knew that Williams was set to take over in the following months. I asked Mr. Williams: “Do you have any special education about this part of the world?”
“No,” he said, to his credit. “I wish I did have more knowledge.”
I wasn’t surprised. After my son’s murder, I felt sure that journalists who interviewed us would be specialists in some way, experts in the history and cultures and religions of this region. But that was rarely the case. Knowledge was certainly not a prerequisite for an interviewer.
After talking about how we came to Israel, we told Mr. Williams that Koby and Yosef had been eighth-grade boys who cut school, went hiking in the canyon behind our home in 2001, and were murdered by Palestinians terrorists, beaten with rocks.
He sympathized and then asked whether Seth had a gun. Seth said yes—he had one locked in a safe upstairs in the bedroom.
“Would you mind going upstairs and getting the gun so we can film you with it?” his producer asked Seth.
Seth said no. We both realized that they wanted to stage a scene – to reinforce a stereotype, a visual of the angry rifle-toting, trigger-happy settler.
Brian Williams interviewed us for about a half an hour. We told him how Koby was not to blame, that the Palestinians had incited violence. We were told that the story would appear on NBC news sometime in the next week.
A few days later, we saw the interview on the Internet. I was furious. I wasn’t upset by what Seth and I had said. We were distraught about the way our story was framed. To open the segment, NBC interviewed an Israeli – an English speaker from Tel Aviv – about her views on the intifada. She sat on the couch in her Tel Aviv apartment and said: The settlers are a cancer on today’s society. They are the reason for all of the problems in Israel.
Then the newscaster said: And here is an example of the people she is talking about: Seth and Sherri Mandell. Settlers from Tekoa. And the camera panned to show us sitting on our couch in our sunroom.
Of course I knew the station wanted to use us to ignite emotion in its viewers. I knew that the media was about conflict, drama and ratings. But how could they malign and betray us like that? How could they mislead us into thinking that they were going to tell our story, our story alone? Nobody had informed us that my son’s murder would be folded into a specious debate about the settlements.
The next morning I wrote to Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw. I sent them an email that said that the way they had framed the broadcast was outrageous, and that they had done us—and the memory of our son Koby — an injustice. They had let the woman from Tel Aviv attack us without giving us a chance to defend ourselves. It was as if she and they had personally called us a cancer.
Tom Brokaw emailed me back. He wrote that the night the program had aired, he had been out to dinner with a Jewish couple, friends of his who had seen the broadcast and thought that it was just fine. A lovely Jewish couple who he had dined with had found the broadcast unobjectionable. Indeed they had felt that we, the settlers, were portrayed very positively.
This was his answer? That was his logic? That a Jewish couple he knew thought that the segment was a wonderful example of journalism. His defense seemed pathetic: no evidence other than an unrepresentative couple who were his friends. This is how the anchor of major network news supported his opinions, garnered his evidence?
I never heard back from Brian Williams. But I have learned this about some TV journalists: in order to create drama, they may omit and manipulate in order to heighten the story.
Certainly we should be saddened by this practice. But not shocked. Its just part of the business.