Brian Williams, the star anchor of U.S. broadcaster NBC, was suspended for six months without pay, for admittedly lying about “coming under fire” in Iraq. The scandal evoked a faint memory of mine during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.
I was in a Huey helicopter traveling to a Korean Marine Corps base near Da Nang, South Vietnam, together with a few reporters from Seoul who were on a short-term tour of Korean units. Suddenly, the two machine-gunners positioned on each side of the chopper began firing into the jungle. After a few minutes of strafing, the chopper’s crew told us civilian passengers that they were responding to ground fire from Viet Cong.
Fortunately, my helicopter and others in the convoy all safely arrived at our destination to the warm welcome of Marine officers. They briefed us on the remarkable activities of the “Blue Dragons,” citing a nearly 10-to-1 kill ratio against the insurgents, the successful pacification program in their tactical area of responsibility and the high morale of our troops.
Back in Seoul, I wrote a few articles about the role of Korean forces in the war from what I had seen and heard on the tour, but the part about an air-to-ground “exchange of fire” on the chopper flight did not make it into my stories. It may have been a chilling experience on my part but it was a trivial occurrence in the war zone. Yet I shared the incident with my colleagues during after-work drinks, enjoying their interest as my description added a thrill to the war tidbits gathered from the tour.
Reading about the Williams episode more than four decades later, I could understand his situation, knowing the common tendency of the media tribe, and all human beings in fact, to make their experiences look bigger. What caused trouble was that he was not quite aware of the destructive power of the audience in this time of a communications revolution. Some veterans who were at the scene of the insurgents’ RPG attack tweeted that Williams made up the story of his Iraq adventure.
News people have performed great feats and sacrifices in modern wars. Seventeen foreign correspondents died during the three years of the Korean War while moving along the battle lines and the Journalists’ Association of Korea has erected a memorial in their honor at the Freedom Bridge on the Imjingang River. But wars also saw more than a few media scandals resulting from individual ambition, and greed and competition between news outlets, as we all know.
The prize-winning pictures “Vietcong Checkpoint” and “Ghost-hunting Marines” by well-known Korean news photographers were later determined to be fakes produced with the help of military publicists. Military information officers ingeniously turned major accidents into stories of heroism, such as a fighter pilot crashing his falling jet into a hillside away from a block of houses to avoid civilian casualties. They justify this kind of spin in the name of military morale.
The Williams affair led me to take a look at the Davie-Brown Index, compiled by a Texas-based PR firm. The index is a list of more than 2,900 American celebrities in entertainment, sports, business and politics that ranks their customer appeal based primarily on trustworthiness to help companies select brand advertisement models.
In the ranking last November, comedian Bill Cosby, who’s been hit with sexual assault charges, fell from third place to 2,615th, leaving the lofty position to Brian Williams, the most popular TV anchor since Walter Cronkite. Three months later, after Williams acknowledged his discrepancies as a journalist, he was nowhere on the list.
Korea, of course, has seen its fair share of public lying by “social leaders,” but I wonder if we react as severely to such misbehaviors as Americans or other Westerners do. Historically, we may have developed a higher degree of forgetfulness and forgiveness as the nation passed through so much adversity and turbulence in all areas of life. If we had the equivalent of Celebrity DBI, the lying factor would not have a heavy influence, particularly on politicians’ rankings.
In my journalistic career, I have seen more than a few cases of public figures hiding the truth. One unforgettable instance was a one-on-one dialogue with a top democratization leader prior to the crucial 1987 election to end the long military rule. He assured me there was absolutely no possibility the opposition force would split, but he announced the creation of a new party only a couple of days later.
Years have passed and we have become accustomed to candidates for president and nominees for high-level government positions coming clean on past “minor law violations” in residence registration and tax reports on property purchase or sales. The Korean champion of stem cell and cloning research helped the nation earn a place in the annals of the world’s scientific misconduct cases through falsifying results. An extraordinary case was the ex-president who chose to end his life when forced to acknowledge bribery involving his family.
Kim Jong-pil, a doyen in Korean politics since the early 1960s, said in a recent interview that he would not write a memoir, though he allowed a comic book to review the highlights of his eventful life. The leader of the 1961 military coup said he did not want to join the great achievers, who all claim to have singlehandedly saved the Republic of Korea. His criticism of a lack of truthfulness in Korean political memoirs reflects his dismissal of the belief that he is bigger than the others.
Now, we have a new prime minister, Lee Wan-koo, who showed indiscretion in trying to impress some young reporters with the long reach of his influence. His assertion of being capable of, for example, summarily replacing a talk show panelist and removing a news item from the cue sheet “with a short phone call” could be true or untrue. If it was true, not only is this shameful for the broadcaster, but for the whole media community; if false, we have a very imaginative and piteously self-flattering man in the top chair of the administration.
Perhaps Brian Williams and the new prime minister have a few things in common.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as a military correspondent from the late 1960s through the ’70s. ― Ed.