By Casey Bukro
The news has been the news in recent weeks, starting with Rolling Stone, then Charlie Hebdo and now NBC’s Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.
Usually, journalists try to avoid being the story, although Williams demonstrated that television celebrities might see no harm in a little self-promoting embellishment even if it’s untrue.
After challenges from military witnesses, Williams now admits he was mistaken or had “gone crazy” when he said that he was in a helicopter that was shot down in 2003 while he was covering the Iraq war. Williams often repeated that scenario, making himself look intrepid.
Whoops. It was another helicopter that was forced down by a rocket hit, not the one Williams was riding. Williams and military witnesses give different accounts of the incident.
Caught in a fabrication that was widely mocked on the internet, Williams said he was stepping down for a few days from his post as managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, a post which ethics expert Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute described as “the primary arbiter of the facts.”
Let’s get one thing straight: Williams was in a helicopter in a war zone, which was dangerous and laudable. Witnesses vouch for that. So I give the guy credit for doing a reporter’s job.
But he went a step too far and landed in the shoals of fabrication and deceit, which ended the careers of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post and Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Their careers crashed and burned.
Dan Rather left CBS News after 44 years for “a mistake in judgment.”
NBC management said they were considering “the best next steps.” They should consider the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. It says “journalists should be honest….” They also should not cast doubt on the credibility of other journalists working to gain the trust and respect of the public.
NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay.
For some people, Williams will be living proof that “reporters make it all up.”
Williams told the false story of his heroics often, and one unanswered question is whether NBC knew the story was fake and did nothing about it. Where were the editors? Or was Williams so untouchable that nothing he said could be challenged? Television crew members with Williams also witnessed the event. Did anyone bother to question them?
To complicate matters, Williams’ 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina also is being challenged since he reported seeing a body floating past his hotel room in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
A local newspaper reported that flood waters did surround the Ritz-Carlton where Williams was staying. And a former sheriff’s sergeant working with the anchor during the Katrina floods says he believes Williams.
Charlie Hebdo was a far more tragic story, in which two gunmen killed 12 people in or near the offices of the satirical magazine, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Two philosophers who are staff members of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wrote blogs about the event. You can read their comments at http://www.ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.
David Ozar and Hugh Miller agreed that no religion condones killing people over religious or philosophical differences. But they saw the Charlie Hebdo massacre turning on the issue of offense, and what should be done to avoid offending the beliefs of others.
A step in that direction came when al-Jezeera English banned the use of certain words that could be offensive in other cultures, such as “terrorists,” “Islamists” or “jihad.”
Nancy Matchett, also an AdviceLine staff member, had this to say about Charlie Hebdo:
” I too think the most interesting and difficult issues raised by satire have to do with the concept of ‘offense.’ One thing I might emphasize a bit more (and here I would be paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line) is that no one can offend another person without that other person’s consent.
“That does not, of course, obviate the point that a person can, through deliberate malice or carelessness or even cluelessness, say or do things that are extremely likely to be taken offensively by specific others (and here again, I agree with both Dave and Hugh that such sayings and doings constitute ethical failings).
“It is just to note that the mere fact that one person ‘took offense’ does not, by itself, show that the purportedly offensive action was the result of a clearly blameworthy motive like malice, etc. Applied very briefly to Charlie Hebdo, it’s my sense that the magazine was trying to deliberately provoke (if not outright offend) in ways that make the taking of offense by various communities justified. But of course a murderous response to even the most highly offensive speech act is inexcusable in any context.”
And I would add one more thought about Charlie Hebdo. And that is to be true to your standards about giving offense. Think hard about it, and decide on your standards. Then stick to them. Charlie Hebdo intentionally offended. It was their standard. Journalists should decide where they draw the line.
Enough time has passed to show that Rolling Stone magazine clearly shot itself in the foot by reporting a story based on a single source, with no attempt at in-depth investigation, about an unnamed woman who said she had been gang raped by seven men at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia campus in 2012.
The story began unraveling almost immediately after it was printed as times, dates, places and people mentioned in the story did not match reality.
The author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, said she had agreed with a request from the alleged rape victim to avoid interviewing anyone else who might have been involved, thereby violating a standard journalism practice to seek as many viewpoints as possible to check the validity of the allegations.
Erdely and Brian Williams have this in common: They should have checked their facts.
Rolling Stone editors later issued a statement saying that in light of new information, “there now appear to be discrepancies,” and the editors concluded their trust in the young woman’s story “was misplaced.”
“The truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story,” tweeted Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana.
The university and the fraternity mentioned in the story were seriously smeared by the allegations, and the legitimate cause of campus rape prevention was damaged.
Charlie Hebdo represented an assault on freedom of expression.
Brian Williams and Rolling Stone represent an assault on professional standards in journalism, and a subversion of simply telling the truth.
1 thought on “When Media Are the News: Brian Williams’ Mistake”
As Casey Bukro notes, the Brian Williams case is only the latest high-profile example of ethical lapses in journalism, which lead the public to believe that “reporters make it all up” — or at least exaggerate, embellish, conflate, inflate, shade or hype the truth to make it a better story? How many journalists have done that sometime in their careers? It’s a matter of degree, but not of kind. Either way, it adds to the public mistrust of the media in general, as the cartoon above illustrates. For a tool that might help, see http://taoofjournalism.org. If journalists were as transparent, accountable and open as we demand of those we cover, our profession might be more trusted and journalists more respected. What else is working?