Get FREE tickets to the 10/21 Travel Show - use code TSFWP at checkout

A surprising defender of Brian Williams

Vietnam vet: "I'm defending Brian Williams... he's not a stolen-valor case."

If anyone would be upset with Brian Williams, I figured that it would be Doug Sterner. The decorated Vietnam veteran has made a career out of tracking down heroes who deserve to be honored and exposing the "stolen valor" of phonies who don't.

That describes Williams in many people's minds. NBC News suspended the Nightly News anchor for six months after he recanted and apologized for his claims that he had been aboard a helicopter that was hit by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade while he was covering the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Sterner, who earned two Bronze Star medals in two tours in Vietnam, seemed to fit the profile of an angry vet who would charge Williams with "stolen valor," false claims of war heroism by people who, in many cases, didn't even serve in the military.

The Boulder, Colo., resident curates the Hall of Valor database at the Military Times website, which aims to document every person who ever earned a medal for combat heroism. He also campaigned for the passage of the federal Stolen Valor Act, which outlaws fraudulent claims of war heroism.

Yet in a telephone interview just before Williams' suspension was announced Sterner sounded surprisingly unruffled about the scandal.

"I have a headline for you," Sterner said in his Boulder headquarters: "Stolen Valor hunter defends Brian Williams."

Say, what?

"I'm defending Brian Williams," Sterner announced. "First of all, he's not a stolen-valor case. 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."

Put simply, Sterner said, Williams took a true incident and embellished it to make it and himself sound more exciting — "Or, in other words, he told what we call a 'war story.' We all tell war stories. Including me! Most often the embellishment is motivated not by a desire to defraud anyone but by a sincere desire to tell a good story."

A review of Williams' public retellings of his yarn reveals a significant evolution: The drama grows like the size and length of "the one that got away" on a fishing trip.

His initial accounts of the 2003 Army mission were accurate, but as the years have gone by, his account changed significantly — from flying behind a helicopter that was hit by an RPG to riding in helicopters that "came under fire" to being on board the helicopter that was hit.

Significantly, that last spine-tingling narrative firmed up in 2013 appearances, not in his news program but in rambling conversations on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and talk shows — 10 years after the incident. By then he may have convinced himself, as psychiatrists say many people often do, that the lie was really true.

Is Williams caught in a double standard to which the entertainers who make up most late-night talk-show guests are not held? You betcha. Journalists like Williams are supposed to be storytellers, not yarn spinners. But let those who never told a good fish story among friends or relatives cast the first stone.

Television news always has struggled against the essentially entertainment-oriented nature of television. Williams helped his newscast succeed in the all-important ratings race by employing his entertainment gifts beyond news to comedic walk-ons on "30 Rock," guest hosting "Saturday Night Live" and slow-jamming the news on "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon.

But the same competitive news environment that pushes news presenters to be entertainers also offers a multitude of critics who are ready to pounce at the first sign of vulnerability. That's why NBC's investigations of Brian Williams' stories grabs more of public attention than, say, investigations of the Washington geniuses who pulled us into the Iraq War that Williams was covering.

Can Williams ever return to the anchor chair, either at NBC or another network? Stranger things have happened. Williams still has skills as a newsman and an entertainer. His downfall came from him blurring the lines that separated one from the other.

Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage. "Culture Worrier," a collection of his best columns, is available in print and at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.

cpage@tribpub.com

Twitter @cptime

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
62°