Tag Archives: NBC

Searching for the Limits of Ethics

By Casey Bukro

Some media people find it impossible to forgive Brian Williams, saying he tainted journalism through false reports.

A cascade of shame enveloped the former NBC anchor, demoted and vilified after saying repeatedly that he was aboard a military helicopter that was forced down over Iraq by enemy fire. Turns out that happened to another military helicopter, not the one he was riding.

Williams’ career began unraveling as other reports were called into question.

From a strictly ethical viewpoint, how should Williams be judged? He admitted he was mistaken about the helicopter incident and apologized.

Ethically, are there limits to forgiveness? Is it best to forgive and forget? Is he forever tainted, or is he allowed to get beyond it and redeem himself?

These questions were posed to AdviceLine’s team of ethicists.

Nancy Matchett, who teaches ethics at the University of Northern Colorado, answered this way:

“Philosophers understand ethics as ongoing reflection about ‘how one should live.’ In the professional context, that means ongoing reflection about the principles that should guide one’s work and how they apply to the concrete choices one faces every day. Ethics doesn’t exactly have a beginning or end.

“And, with respect to the Williams affair, we can evaluate his choices since the incident, and the choices of the network, as well as the original mistake.”

I asked Matchett if that suggests we should judge Williams and the aftermath by what he does from now on?

“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Matchett. “But I guess what I’m also trying to emphasize is that the fact that any particular bit of conduct that was good, bad, etc., is never ‘the whole story about Williams’ ethics.’ There is no whole story, except perhaps after a person is dead, because characters are never wholly fixed.

“What he does from now on should be judged in light of the fact that we know he is at least careless and at worst inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of a story.”

I told Matchett that appears to raise the issue of redemption.

“I don’t really have anything to say about redemption,” said Matchett. “Whether another person, or ‘the profession,’ forgives Williams doesn’t change his act from wrong to right. It acknowledges that his character isn’t all bad and that the mistake was in some sense ‘understandable’ given the various pressures he was under. And just to be crystal clear, note that ‘understandable’ is not the same as ‘justifiable.’ Or as we say in my business, an explanation is not the same as an excuse.

“As for people finding it ‘impossible to forgive,’ that’s a psychological issue or question, not the ethically central one. The ethically central issue is whether forgiveness is morally appropriate, whether people should do it, which is a little different from whether they can. … If it’s not appropriate, then folks are doing the right thing by refusing to forgive.

“But in general, I think any network would be foolish to leave him as an anchor on their main show. He has harmed his own and the network’s credibility. Even if the network execs were convinced that it was a forgivable mistake and his journalistic integrity could be counted on in the future, the average viewer surely doesn’t know Williams well enough to decide whether to trust him again.”

David A. Craig, another AdviceLine ethicist, who teaches ethics at the University of Oklahoma, sees it a different way:

“It troubles me that Williams seems to deflect responsibility for his untruths by saying he did not intend them. Journalists, especially those in roles as high profile as his, have a responsibility for every word that comes out of their mouths in a formal journalistic setting.

“If this were a single brief slipup in language, that would be different. But he was untruthful more than once about his experience in Iraq. Every viewer now has reason to question his trustfulness in the future. By failing to fully take responsibility for his words, he gives his audience ongoing reason to doubt.”

Reason to doubt Williams first emerged when military publication Stars and Stripes challenged his account of being aboard the helicopter that was forced down over Iraq.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, then stripped him of his duties as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

As Matchett points out, we don’t know “the whole story” about Williams yet. Already, he is the subject of jokes and spoofs by the likes of Harry Shearer.

Forgiveness happens on two levels, personal and professional.

Journalists are notoriously soft on each other, and hard on everyone else. Journalists don’t like to criticize or censure other journalists. So, personally, they are likely to forgive Williams by finding that morally appropriate, as Matchett put it. They will write about ethical transgressions, but that’s not the same as taking a personal stand.

Professionally, it’s hard to forgive an act that weakens public trust in the integrity of journalism, which rests on a foundation of truth. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics begins with this tenet: “Seek truth and report it.”

Falsehoods damage the profession, and cannot be tolerated.

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CBC Acts Fast, NBC Acts Slow

By Casey Bukro

Consider the differences in the way Canadian and United States broadcasting officials reacted when their star performers got into trouble.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation swiftly fired political anchor Evan Solomon, one of the biggest names in Canadian journalism, for moonlighting as a fine arts broker.

NBC is still trying to decide what to do about high-profile anchor Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months in February for saying he was aboard a helicopter over Iraq that was forced down by enemy fire, which proved untrue. Reports say Williams’ lawyer is making negotiations “excruciating” for NBC as it tries to decide what to do with Williams.

The comparison is interesting because both Solomon and Williams have been described as among the biggest media names in their countries.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, officially known as CBC/Radio-Canada, serves as the National Public Radio and Television broadcaster.

CBC acted swiftly after the Toronto Star reported that, for commissions of about 10 percent, Solomon had been working with a Toronto art collector and had earned at least $300,000 over two years, and believed he was entitled to another $1 million.

Solomon had disclosed to CBC in April that a production company he owned with his wife had a business partnership with an art dealer that would not conflict with his CBC News work.

After an independent investigation, CBC/Radio-Canada CEO Hubert Lacroix said Solomon was fired to protect “the integrity of the content and the journalism that we make.”

Reaction at CBC reportedly was mixed with anger and frustration, in part because of other ethics issues that had surfaced in the past. Some called it a “disproportionate response” and Solomon could appeal.

Tim Bousquet, editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner, called what Solomon did a “crime against journalism.”

CBC’s sensitivity to ethical lapses no doubt was heightened by the earlier downfall of another CBC star, Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired for rough sex with women. He is facing trial on charges of sexual assault and choking.

The Guardian quoted critics who said the broadcaster’s decision to “groom celebrity journalists” led to a “corrosive culture” of stars with tremendous power and little self-restraint. Said one: “When you create these celebrities, you create monsters.”

Meanwhile, the Brian Williams case drags on. After suspending Williams, NBC reportedly found other instances where the anchor had exaggerated his involvement in events. Williams had apologized for the helicopter event, after military sources pointed out that Williams was not riding in a helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire.

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position,” Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, said in a memo.

The outcome remains to be seen. The suspension ends in August.

Nothing so far has been finalized in the Williams affair, reported columnist Lisa de Moraes, calling it a media cliffhanger.

The case drew attention from The New York Times. It said the episode “has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture of NBC News.”

Politico media writer Jack Shafer writes that Williams knows he’s dead, but is negotiating the terms of his burial.

In Vanity Fair, correspondent Bryan Burrough says the newsman is too damaged to return to the anchor’s desk. Burrough toyed with possibilities for a return.

Clearly, there are cultural and historical differences between Canada and the United States, as anyone who has traveled the two countries can attest. But maybe it’s possible to generalize and say that among the similarities between the two countries, which are fast allies, is a faith in media ethics. The details usually are messy, but ethics matters.

Donations Might Help to Define a Journalist

By Casey Bukro

One of the questions roiling journalism’s waters these days is, what defines a journalist?

One of the answers sometimes given is that a journalist is defined by what he or she does — committing acts of journalism like writing, reporting, editing or producing something that gives people information.

Usually standards exist for doing those activities, such as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Lately, though, some broadcast journalists have shown that they might be confused about those standards, or simply ignored them. Or, are they leading the way toward a new era when broadcast opinion and partiality are overwhelmingly becoming the standards?

The most notorious case is Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who was suspended without pay for six months, for falsely reporting that he had been on a helicopter shot down in Iraq. Actually, another helicopter had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced down.

Williams apologized for the exaggeration, saying: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” The military publication Stars and Stripes had reported that Williams’ account of the incident was inaccurate.

“The episode has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture at NBC News,” The New York Times reported. NBC is investigating whether Williams exaggerated other reports, and will decide whether Williams returns to his post.

The SPJ ethics code says: Seek truth and report it.

Less prominent is the case of ABC News analyst and anchor George Stephanopoulis, who apologized for donating $75,000 to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation without disclosing his donation to the network, as required. The donations were reported in the foundation’s public disclosure.

“We accept his apology,” ABC said in a statement. “It was an honest mistake.”

Stephanopoulos called the donations an “uncharacteristic lapse.”

His actions led to demands that Stephanopoulos recuse himself from all 2016 election coverage.

Critics recall that Stephanopoulos served President Bill Clinton as a political strategist before moving into broadcasting, despite allegations that he lacked journalistic objectivity.

“But with his acknowledgment that he had given a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation, he found himself facing accusations that he was effectively trying to buy favor with his former employers as Mrs. Clinton seeks the presidency for a second time,” reported the New York Times.

The Stephanopoulos disclosures prompted Judy Woodruff, PBS News Hour co-anchor, to make an on-air disclosure of her own: She said she gave $250 to the Clinton Foundation “for charitable purposes.”

The SPJ code says: Be accountable and transparent. It also says: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

But are traditional standards and values still important, now that opinion or advocacy journalism are so widespread online? If those traditional standards were as entrenched as they seemed during Walter Cronkite’s day, when he was considered one of the most trusted men in journalism, perhaps Williams and Stephanopoulos would not have overlooked them so easily till they were caught.

Add to their stumbles the recent case of Rolling Stone, which apologized for reporting an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia, a story based largely on one anonymous source. The story later was discredited by police and Rolling Stone was sued.

These cases, says Stephen J.A. Ward, a University of British Columbia ethicist, point to a “striking fragmentation” in journalism ethics and how they are applied, holding some anchors and reporters to the ideal of objectivity and independence while others are not.

“This only points to the utter breakdown of any consensus on journalism ethics,” said Ward.

The SPJ ethics code says: Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.

With changing perspectives in journalism, it’s important for news organizations to adopt written standards, so employees understand the standards that govern their organization. As journalism changes, these standards might change depending on how news organizations define themselves.

Their audiences, too, benefit from knowing what to expect.

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.”

Olympic Tears

By Casey Bukro

Olympic skier Bode Miller cried as NBC’s Christin Cooper interviewed him, asking him a string of questions about the influence Miller’s dead brother might have had on the skier’s bronze metal performance in the race he had just finished.

Midway through the interview, tears streaming down his face, stammering at times, Miller bowed his helmeted head and fell silent. Cooper placed a hand on Miller’s arm and said: “Sorry.”

The media and the world in general have come down hard on Cooper,  a former Olympic skier herself in the 1984 games, for “pushing too hard” in the Miller interview.

In the aftermath of this furor, Miller proved to be a class act. He tweeted, “please be gentle w christen cooper, it was crazy emotional and not at all her fault.” In another tweet, he said “she asked questions that every interviewer would have, pushing is part of it, she wasn’t trying to cause pain.”

Miller has a point. It is the nature of television to go for the visual and the emotional. Cooper noted that Miller looked to the sky moments before starting his medal-winning Alpine Super-G run, implying he might be thinking about his brother Chelone, who died at the age of 29 last year after suffering a seizure. Miller said later there was some truth to that.

Cooper is one of those attractive sport figures turned broadcasters. Without a background in professional journalism, there is reason to believe Cooper simply does not understand or did not have the depth of experience to learn how far to go. She is co-founder of a restaurant in Bozeman, Montana.

There are boundaries in good taste and ethics that professional journalists learn to recognize, or should learn to recognize.

At least credit Cooper for saying “sorry,” perhaps moved by seeing how emotionally distraught Miller became by her questions about Chelone.

Television puts attractive but nonprofessional commentators in sensitive situations at its own peril. That might be one of the lessons of the Sochi Olympics in Russia.

Although much of the criticism rained down on Cooper, nothing was said about the excessive time NBC’s camera followed Miller after he walked away from Cooper, then slumped down weeping against a low wall until his wife came to comfort him. It was too much.

The Cooper interview has been timed by the New York Times at 75 seconds. But the camera lingered on Miller far longer after he ended the interview by walking away.  At that point, the interview was over. Miller should have been left alone in his private grief, instead of being hounded by the camera.

Maybe it was NBC’s idea of good TV, but it was  a bad way to treat a human being.