By Tony Silvia
Dated February 11, 2015
As someone who teaches and lectures on media ethics, this week has created a fertile ground—maybe better described as a battlefield—for ethical discussion and deliberation. Why a battlefield? Perhaps it’s because that’s the turf on which Williams’ detractors (and there are many) and supporters (who seem invisible if there are any) are warring over the NBC anchorman’s integrity. It began with disclosures that Williams may have fabricated details of the extent to which he was directly involved in a firefight while reporting from Iraq in 2003. It has grown to a scrutiny of other stories Williams has reported in his ten years as the network’s primary news presence, including accusations that details of his reporting during Hurricane Katrina also contained inaccuracies, if not outright fabrications. Most recently, questions have been raised surrounding a story he told during a media interview stating that, as a youth in New Jersey, he stared down danger in the form of a revolver pointed at him during a robbery. Among his chief competitors, CNN compiled Williams’ alleged lapses in truth telling, seen here:
Meantime, NBC executives have been “mum” except to (1) state that there is an ongoing “internal” investigation, headed by one of its investigative producers; (2) ostensibly approve Williams’ “own” decision to remove himself from the Nightly News anchor chair because he stated that he was concerned that instead of reporting the news, he was becoming the news, a phrase worth remembering in the larger context of the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of this expanding storyline.
The timing of Williams fall from grace is interesting, if not ironic. In celebrating his tenth anniversary as their news standard bearer, late last year and into this, NBC had launched a major promotional campaign touting the “trust” Brian Williams had earned over his time reporting the “big” stories of our time, Iraq and Afghanistan among them. Oddly, they’re still available on-line, suggesting that, if his bosses at NBC had doubts about Williams’ truth-telling, they either sublimated those or believed that, on balance, they didn’t negate his body of work:
Of course, there’s another possible explanation. As the Baltimore Sun’s media critic, David Zurawik has suggested, maybe the standards for truth in journalism have changed so drastically that the kinds of “errors” (if that’s what they were) made by Williams really don’t resonate with the public any longer—and so maybe they didn’t exactly reverberate with his bosses. I would argue that whether they do, they should. So should the way we refer to what’s really at stake here.
Journalists, I’ve been teaching students and professionals for over a quarter century, use words precisely. Public relations people are in the business of using words selectively. Since this story broke, I’ve heard Williams’ offenses referred to as “conflations,” “memory lapses,” even “embellishments.” How about “untruths” or, to use, the word’s less euphemistic equivalent, “lies?”
Frankly, I don’t know the truth. As with so many stories that intrigue us, only those who were there do. I do know, however, that we can’t get at the truth and report it if we only act like a news organization when we’re reporting on others besides ourselves. That’s exactly what NBC is doing. Internal investigation? By whom? An NBC producer whose livelihood essentially depends upon the favor of the very person he’s “investigating?” My son, a Boston attorney, would say, “come on, now,” or, as a Time magazine editorialist rightfully observes, a news organization would never accept this from any other corporation on which it was reporting.
I do know this. As my colleague at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Al Tompkins, has pointed out, the president of NBC News hasn’t come out supporting Brian Williams. Why is that? I suggest that maybe NBC is using its business sense more than its journalistic sensibility Consider. The latest rating period shows Brian Williams’ real faltering may be more ratings centered than ethically driven.
Williams’ most recent ratings, seen here, http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2015/02/10/world-news-tonight-is-delivering-its-largest-overall-season-audience-in-7-years/361708/, are on the decline. Television news is a business. When you become a liability to the business because you lose trust, maybe you lose your job. After all, that’s what your bosses promised in all those promos they ran and now they look bad. That’s part of it, but not, as they say, the whole story.
Brian Williams is a very rich man, on the order of a major music or music star. And his behavior has indicated that stature. He’s done the rounds: Letterman, Fallon, Stewart. He has even gotten in on his daughter, Allison’s, celebrity status. As Dan Abrams, a former NBC colleague put it: “Williams’ comedic appearances on the likes of “SNL” and the “Daily Show” have boosted his popularity but made him more vulnerable.”
The cult of celebrity is a curious, yet pervasive, influence in our society. It can make you and it can break you. Brian Williams crossed that line from journalist to celebrity. With it came recognition, fame, and the lifestyle bought by both. What didn’t transfer was the awareness that some lines can’t be crossed. As one of my current students recognized, there’s a tendency for old journalists, like old warriors, to tweak their memories just enough to make a story they’ve told before just that much better on retelling.
When you come to believe you are the story, creating a better story may seem only natural. In 1987 a seminal movie titled Broadcast News captured the nation’s attention, if only because it offered a rare glimpse inside the process by which news is “made.” The main character, when questioned about an ethical lapse that led him to fabricate details of a story, acknowledged there was a line he had crossed, but also argued that “they just keep moving the little bugger.” That line may have, indeed, shifted, and for a whole variety of reasons. But I would argue there still is a line.
I once had on my office wall a quote from J.R. Ewing, the opportunist main character of the television series Dallas. It read, “Once you give up integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.” That’s fine for a fictional character, but not when applied to someone in a field where integrity is a central, core value. They’re two different story lines and we expect, and have a right to expect, that one of them is true.