I covered two murder trials in central Florida as a credentialed journalist. I did some rather intensive investigative work and I diligently reported what I found out. I’ve written, quite possibly, millions of words. I shot videos from locations pertinent to the alleged crimes, right down to the tree where Caylee’s skull was found and where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Why? Because I wanted people to understand as best as they could. I live in central Florida. Most of my readers don’t. It was my desire to give viewers as much information about the cases as possible. I was very detailed in everything I did. I lined up timelines and distances. I interpreted statutes as they arose in motions and responses and how they played out in court. My heart was embedded in those cases. I loved reporting what was going on inside courtrooms during hearings and trials. It was in my blood and I felt I was quite good at it or I wouldn’t have done it. I could feel the intensity; the raw emotions and hidden expressions, as if I could sometimes read minds, and I did my utmost to be as candid as possible. To say I was at my best and in my element would be an understatement.
God knows, I tried to get answers from everyone. Every day, I talked to attorneys directly involved in the cases, both the prosecution and defense, the witnesses willing to open up, and many of the seasoned journalists that helped educate me. One TV personality (a three-time Emmy winning reporter for WESH, the local NBC affiliate) introduced me to national reporters as Orlando’s own version of Dominick Dunne. I felt humble, yet very proud of that distinction, although I haven’t lived up to the name since Zimmerman’s verdict was rendered. To be honest, I don’t think I ever came close to Dunne, but I sure did appreciate the lofty compliment.
I must say I savored every moment. I proved my worth as a writer. At my all-time high, I got over 200,000 hits on my blog in a single month. One day, I peaked at nearly 20,000 visits. I was hired by Orlando magazine to write on their Website about the Casey Anthony trial from inside the courtroom atop the Orange County courthouse. Am I bragging? Yes. Am I embellishing? No. Have I ever embellished? Kinda, sorta, no, not in the classical sense, but every professional writer elaborates a bit. Maybe it’s a mild form of embellishment. I don’t know, to be honest, so I will give you an example instead…
I can’t remember, word-for-word, every conversation that takes place on a given day because I write from either notes or memory. This means that, when I type a part of my article from a conversational point of view, I’m not quoting verbatim. In order to help make certain thoughts clearer, I take what’s referred to as journalistic license to build a story, but I keep the gist of it intact. That’s most important and the bottom line is, I would never make anything up or change the facts to suit me in any way, shape or form. I would never add details that are not true. I believe in honesty because it’s my nature, and I learned a long time ago from experience, you do not write the news to promote yourself!
There are ways to perk up stories without going over the line. It flows forth in writing styles, be it alliteration or rhetorical effect. You know… Onomatopoeia. Hyperbole. Metaphors. Similes. Euphemisms. That’s all acceptable, but there will never be a day when I have to clear up a “bungled attempt” at a fictional account of the truth.
I am going to tell you flat out that I would distinctly remember whether my helicopter had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade OR NOT, no matter how many years ago it took place. Being shot at is something you never forget, so there’s no excuse for being vague about it. Every degreed journalist is trained to make distinctions between real and imagined. If you’re not sure, don’t say it, because, once you lose your credibility, you will NEVER regain it. Many reporters have lost their jobs over it, but a network news anchor?
“… the fog of memory over 12 years made me conflate the” experience, Brian Williams said in his apology. Over the years, his nose grew and grew and, by Saturday, his apology wasn’t enough, so he took a leave of absence. In my opinion, it was an easy way to nudge him out the door. I don’t think he’ll be back.
On the other hand, times are different. Today, lying is an art form. Skewing the truth takes no talent. Politicians do it all the time and we either buy it or ignore it. But news anchors? Reporting the news from a left or right slant is commonplace and a lot of it is pure entertainment. We expect that these days; however, it’s still mostly about the story, not the personality relaying it. That is, until the personality becomes the headline. Once Williams crossed the threshold and became the news, his anchoring days flew out the High Density window. The main question now becomes: Is he telling the truth? His integrity is toast. He has become the Lance Armstrong of the news industry. In his day, the impeccable Walter Cronkite would have been canned for lesser things. Sure, he was entitled to his opinions, but he never let his ego get in the way of what he reported each weeknight.
I never had any disdain for Williams. I liked him, although I didn’t put him in the same league with Tom Brokaw, whom he replaced at NBC. Unfortunately, this sad twist soured me on him, and I think he needs to be replaced.
I tasted this business and I know the difference between bragging and stretching the truth. Hey! I just bragged about myself, but all of it was true. No exaggeration! I hated doing it, but I want you to know the difference. I don’t like liars and I don’t want to be the most interesting guy in the world. I simply prefer to be an interesting guy. One you can trust.