Brian Williams, Virtue and the Culture of Network TV News

IMG_9935Correspondent and professor Mike Boettcher, left, with public TV anchor Dick Pryor and professor and editor Yvette Walker (photo by Collier Hammons)

By David Craig

Who’s to blame for Brian Williams’ exaggerations about covering the Iraq war? Clearly he’s to blame because they were his choices. But Mike Boettcher, a longtime foreign correspondent for CNN and NBC who now does work for ABC, had an interesting take on that question during a panel I participated in last week at a conference at the University of Oklahoma.

Boettcher, who is now my colleague on the faculty at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said we can blame Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. “They became the biggest stars in television news” based on the history they built as war correspondents – Murrow covering the blitz in Britain during World War II and Cronkite flying combat missions in B-17s. Thanks to their work, being a war correspondent became a rite of passage in TV news, Boettcher told the audience at the midwinter conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

In our era, Boettcher said, anchors are developed “in a very accelerated way, and I think that’s partly to blame for what happened.” He said Williams was the weekend anchor at WCBS in New York and the head of talent recruitment at NBC had his eye on him. After he came to NBC, the network “began to build the narrative around him,” parachuting him into the sites of major stories so he could build his “promotional reel.” Boettcher said Williams “started believing that narrative that was built around him,” and may have felt pressure to tell stronger stories because he didn’t believe his were good enough.

The Williams situation and Boettcher’s comments make me think of what philosophers call virtue ethics, a line of thought that goes back to Aristotle. Many discussions of journalism ethics focus on ethical dilemmas – hard choices involving balancing of principles such as seeking truth and minimizing harm. But a key element of ethics is connected with character and traits such as honesty and courage that people develop as habits and reflect in their decisions.

Did Williams’ conduct reflect a character flaw? That’s hard to say without being inside his head or being around him regularly, but the evidence of a pattern of exaggeration makes me wonder. Surely a key part of NBC’s investigation will be to see whether more evidence of a pattern exists.

Alongside the idea of virtue ethics comes a concept from Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He talks about a concept he calls external goods – achievements that accompany practices (including journalism and other professions) but are not part of the substance of what these practices do. External goods – such as status, power and profit – have the potential to corrupt practices. They get in the way of virtuous conduct.

Did desire for status corrupt Williams’ pursuit of honesty? As with consideration of his character itself, that is a difficult question to judge at a distance. Regardless, though, his story is a cautionary tale for journalists and journalism students. That is particularly true in the age of celebrity journalism. Building one’s brand individually, and building a corporate brand and ratings, can overshadow honest and courageous pursuit of the truth.

Dick Pryor, an anchor on public television in Oklahoma who was on the panel with Boettcher, agreed it’s easy for anchors to get “wrapped up in who they are,” to start thinking they can’t apologize and to think they are “bigger than the news.” He said it’s important to use the “truth filter” and remember what you’re there for – not to make money or create a persona but to provide news and interpretation as a public service.

The ethical bar is higher than ever today for anchors and for other journalists because, as with the soldiers who helped bring Williams down via Facebook, every member of the public can instantly question the truth of what any journalist does. As Yvette Walker, an editor for The Oklahoman who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, put it, “Someone will find you out.” And as Boettcher said, there is a “new check and balance” where a little guy can bring down an anchor.

In the end, what NBC does with Williams will probably be driven by public feedback, said Todd Spessard, news director for KWTV in Oklahoma City. The “citizen ombudsman” helped create the situation, and “for better or for worse it will probably be the viewing public that in the end decides how this plays out.”

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About David Craig

Professor and associate dean, Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma. I teach and write about journalism ethics.