The Internet has given everyone with an iPad or a laptop his 15 minutes of celebrity, if not exactly fame, and there's no limit to the abuse the facts must take. President Obama is merely the most famous exemplar of how facts, history and sometimes truth are cheated of their due. Truth, immune to public opinion, and facts, which are not, are often confused. Truth. The Gospels are true, the law of gravity is true, a child's smile is true. What you might read in a newspaper or hear on television, not so much. Truth is much too precious to survive in the hands of journalists, pundits and anchormen, who at their best sometimes deliver a fact. Truth is best left to the theologians.
Brian Williams, the tall tale teller for NBC News, has had a rough few days, but he's likely to survive and he entertained everyone for almost a week before disappearing for a time of "reflection." He'll probably be back, and if he isn't maybe it was because he couldn't survive the eloquence of Dan Rather defending him as the voice of network integrity.
Some of the best commentary on the Williams episode was the disrespectful and ribald stuff on the Internet, the reader comments tacked onto the end of the news accounts with facts we might otherwise have never known. Alert readers recalled Mr. Williams' heroism at Gettysburg, where he lost his right leg covering Pickett's Charge across the wheat field, following the Confederates to their brief breakthrough at the Bloody Angle; his management of the complicated logistics of the D-Day landings at Normandy, where he lost his left arm; his standing at the side of DeBakey, sharpening the knives for a heart transplant; his development, with the assistance of Jonas Salk, of the polio vaccine. Who knew all those facts?
Network television ain't what it used to be, when Walter Cronkite could say at the end of a newscast, "…and that's the way it is," and everybody, or nearly everybody, would believe him, as foolish then as now. But celebrity is all. When Al Jolson said Georgie Jessell was "famous for being famous," everybody took it for remarkable insight.
"In addition to marketing campaigns," observes Ken Auletta, the media critic at New Yorker magazine, "something else happens that often induces anchors to think of themselves as G0D. Each of them is seen in roughly 8 to 10 million homes nightly. They are seen by more people and more frequently than any movie star. To walk down a street with an anchor is to be stunned both by how many people recognize them and how many viewers call out to them about specific stories. There's a respectful familiarity different from the awe displayed to Hollywood celebrities. The anchor is treated as the citizen's trusted guide to the news. As a result [anchormen] can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play G0D. It's a short distance from there to telling fantastic stories and maybe actually believing them."
Once upon a distant time, before everyone was empowered to be his own con man, there was a respect, which sometimes bordered on awe, of history: The moving finger writes, and stay out of the way. Facts were respected even in the breach.
The new standard trickles down. There's a memorial to the dead of the nation's wars on Main Street in tiny Greenwood, S.C. The names of Greenwood's fallen, like everything else in Greenwood of that era, were separated by "white" and "colored." The names of the Korean and Vietnam war dead, from a different time, were not. The mayor wants to chisel out the remembrance of those unhappy times now fading swiftly into the past. Historians, both black and white, say the separation should be left alone, a needed reminder of how the military was once segregated.
"Segregation was the accepted social order of that time," says Eric Williams, for 32 years a historian with the U.S. Park Service. "If we alter the monument, we alter its historical integrity."
The mayor, Welborn Adams, a white Democrat, thinks history can be erased like the separate water fountains and the alley entrance to the movie theater once mandated by state law. "I think if history offends people it needs to be rewritten if possible." Who needs a fact if you've got celebrity?