The Brian Williams Thing

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What Brian Williams did is unacceptable.   Upholding the public trust is all-important and he lied to his viewers – and then lied again to try and get out from under the first lie.    And now some apologists are trying to make excuses for his actions.   Possibly because lying has become so commonplace as to be acceptable in contemporary American culture?

Must we be reminded that journalists are held to a higher standard than politicians?

Being shot down in a war zone is not something you would later “conflate,” it is an event that would mark your life.   It is something you would never forget.

What Brian Williams did is unacceptable.  Unless NBC wants to admit that it is no longer in the business of doing Journalism.    They have no right to claim the same ground as Larry Greene of CBS,  Bill Stewart of ABC or  Don Harris of NBC.   Three three of the many who have given their lives for the craft.

Journalism, is a serious business.   Some standards are never to be violated.   Knowingly lying to your viewers or readers, is one of those standards.  This is no joke.  Or at least it should not be.  The fact that more in the Journalism community aren’t more concerned is alarming.

But then, nothing is really all that important anymore, what with dozens of channels bringing us the “news” 7/24, and the near impossibility of discerning the difference between “real” news outlets and infotainment wonks.

If NBC is strictly in the business of doing entertainment programming to sell products and they no longer feel the need to uphold the standards of Journalism, then they need to come out and tell us that.   In fact, it would be nice to hear a statement of purpose from all the big nets.   What is their purpose?   What’s their policy on honesty and accuracy?   To do the best they can given the circumstances in light of advertiser’s and stockholder’s demands?  Whatever Fox came up with would surely be side-splittingly funny.

This situation makes a mockery of all the hard working honest journalists who continue doing the best they can in spite of corporate cutbacks and the explosion of greed-driven infotainment on the tv side with anchors being paid multiple millions of dollars annually, not necessarily to do the news, but to promote themselves and their product, whatever that might be,  automobiles, noodle soup or a cure for erectile dysfunction.

Those who turn their backs and claim otherwise, are only contributing to the problem, which, in its current  condition,  may be beyond repair.

In the end whether Williams stays or goes will probably depend upon one simple issue:   If NBC thinks they can keep him without hurting their ratings, then he will stay.   If they feel he’s going to cost them ad revenue, then he’s gone.   Public trust and public service be damned, it’s only business and you are just one more customer.

4 thoughts on “The Brian Williams Thing”

  1. Let the in-house investigation work its way through the process. It’s fine if Mr. Williams takes time off during the process. Anything else, it seems to me, it premature. I don’t know the facts. Neither do you. The story that I saw on “Dateline” a couple of nights after Williams’ ride-along with the military is essentially what Williams is saying now. If he subsequently got into trouble, it was with possible embellishment over the years in the retelling of the story. But the reaction I’ve read and seen has been near-hysteria: “ready-fire-aim.” The sense I’ve seen is “Williams is guilty. We’re not sure what he’s guilty of doing but he’s guilty. Off with his head.” My advise is don’t get ahead of the story.

  2. As a news director I’ve been fortunate; I’ve only had to fire a very few people and then only for very clear reasons. The first time I ever fired a reporter was for “knowingly and intentionally falsifying information in an aired report.” I still remember the verbiage. His excuse was that he was trying to make the report more interesting. There was then (back in the early 80s), and there is now, no other choice but dismissal for such an act.

    Brian Williams is supposed to be a news man. He’s supposed to know the difference between fact and fiction. He’s supposed to hold himself to a higher standard. The apologists surprisingly argue that the “facts” aren’t in yet. Just watch the video of what he’s said. The facts are in. Memory doesn’t befog or omit having nearly been killed. And those of us who are veterans deeply resent weekend warriors claiming turf they’ve never gained.

    He lied. For whatever reasons. He lied. And that lie, which he claims is a “fog” of memory, affects his entire organization since he is the logo for that news service. He’s done the right thing by taking himself out of the way. I would hope that the management offered this to him as a face-saving move to get him off and out. It’s the only plausible action for an organization that must have credibility as its bedrock priniciple.

  3. To you, Ron, and Paul, the news director, as insiders like me, the facts — and the problems — are clear. To you, Robert, I guess other standards may apply. As a retired 40-year tv reporter and anchor, here’s my take:

    All media is basically a business, with a product aimed at specific audiences, with the reputation for credibility crucial for the business to prosper. It’s just as true for newspapers, radio news and so-called “new media” internet services as for tv news. And because the news media industry is so competitive, people will constantly “cross the line,” forgetting the old adage from their journalism professors, that “You are not the story!” Television is so powerful in its images, it’s easy for the “storyteller” to jump across from the “facts” to entertainment, what we call “infotainment.”

    There’s not a reporter anywhere who didn’t at times exaggerate some facts, eliminate others — in other words, “slant” or “spin” a story, because of personal convictions or the urge to “stunt” the story. It’s inside all of us, who work in the information game, the constant temptation to emphasize certain aspects about a report — often under real pressure from news bosses, who want stories to meet their presentation criteria — in other words, be sensational — to attract and hold viewers, readers, listeners.

    Yes, it’s a business, and the term “yellow journalism” is a lot older than tv. What makes the news game different, especially today, is the cult of personality, embodied in the face and voice of the storyteller. Enter the Network Anchor.

    Think Edward R. Morrow, in his trenchcoat, reporting from war-torn London. Think Walter Cronkite. And in my opinion, the news bosses began to lose control of content — and presentation — when they gave Cronkite the Managing Editor title, along with his Network Anchor title.

    Since then, virtually every news anchor in the business has sought — and often been given — the same editorial power as Walter. Most anchors, most of the time, at least stay inside the lines, whatever those “lines” are, as defined by both the news organization and it’s viewers.

    But what’s crucial is the anchor’s credibility, the believability of the words and pictures. Once you lose credibility, you’ve lost your currency with the audience. And if you’re not just the storyteller, but also the boss of the whole show, you cannot be challenged within your news organization. That’s obviously what happened with Brian Williams at NBC.

    Think about it. When the main network anchor “Bigfoots” the story on location — for increased stature and credibility with viewers — lots of other news professionals go along, too. While Williams was on the scene during the war incident in question, he was surrounded by at least one news photographer, maybe a sound engineer, a field producer, and close by, a video editor. Not to mention the network’s local bureau chief. They all have first-hand knowledge of what actually happened during the incident in question — because they were there, too.

    Now, the NBC “internal investigation.” That means the rest of the company’s current and former employees who know full well what really happened with Williams will be questioned — and there may even be some scapegoating, with the firing of others, “who should have come forward” at the time.

    Let’s see, you were the cameraman along on the chopper, right? You know full well what happened, because you were there, right? Your choices are, 1) rat out the news giant — a sure career-ender for you, once the bosses realize the whole organization rests on the anchor’s cred, or 2) keep you mouth shut, and keep you job.

    Again, Ron and Paul, you both know the “facts” are less important than The Problem. News anchors will continue to be stars, because it’s good for the news business. But making the star the news boss, too, will continue to create opportunities like the Brian Williams fiasco. NBC created The Problem when they gave Williams the power that should have remained in the hands of the news bosses. He could not be challenged on his reporting.

    Walter Cronkite may have never violated his trust with the American People, as a News God. But since he got to be the news boss, plenty of other anchors who wanted the same power have abused the position, and hurt their organizations.

    Yes, it’s a business. Yes, ratings and revenues matter most. But your good name is really the product. Nobody trusts damaged goods.

  4. Ron, Paul, and Jim nailed it…

    Thanks for fleshing it out even further Jim. You are absolutely correct in your analysis regarding the other members of the news team that was with Williams.

    The slippery slope that Jim identified is pretty much how the “internal investigation” will probably unfold.

    Those of us who’ve spent our entire careers in television news divisions have seen this movie before.

    Unfortunately, it probably won’t fare too well for the news crew that was with Williams on that fateful tour…

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