The Society of Professional Journalists, the industry’s standards watchdog and quality control agent, is pretty clear on how fundamental the truth is to journalism. Under its Code of Ethics, under the heading “Seek Truth and Report It’ the organization instructs journalists to:
Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible. [Emphasis added]
It is in this context that NBC News must weigh the ‘misremembering’ of its nightly news anchor Brian Williams, who has admitted to lying about his past reporting of being in a military helicopter that took enemy fire while covering the Iraq war. This is no simple oversight or memory lapse, as Williams suggests, but a wholesale fabrication. The network has properly launched an internal investigation, not just examining Williams’ reporting on Iraq but also his work covering Hurricane Katrina that has also been questioned for its truthfulness. On the Iraq deception alone the popular news host should be terminated. And that is painful for me to suggest since I grew fond of Brian during my tenure as a contributor on MSNBC during the channel’s first years when he hosted its nightly news program. He is as he projects on the screen, a pretty regular guy, with a great sense of humor who is very personable. His implosion has been difficult to watch but he can’t avoid being held accountable. The reputation of NBC News, or what’s left of it after the Ann Curry debacle and the messy departure of David Gregory from ‘Meet the Press,’ is at stake.
America’s news industry is in a precarious state. The public is disbelieving and mistrustful of reporting. And why shouldn’t we be skeptical? Outright fabricated reporting such as Williams’ deception cuts to the character of those we trust to at least tell the truth. It is one thing to report inaccuracies based upon being fed bad or intentionally misleading information, such as occurred during the Vietnam War, but it is quite another to purposefully deceive. It is why Walter Cronkite’s famous moment of enlightenment on the Vietnam War still stands out as the gold standard for truth in journalism. What further betrays public enlightenment is the politically calculated half-truths and lies ‘reported’ by the likes of the Fox ‘Skews’ Channel, ideologically coated dribble that serves to misinform and skew the nation’s politics to the right. While Williams’ lie can be cast as a personal failure of great magnitude, what occurs daily on Fox is much more sinister and dangerous; a coldly calculated plan to use the airwaves to incite, scapegoat, divide and control government.
Though the audience for broadcast networks’ evening news programs has declined significantly in this era of the 24/7 news cycle, the occupant of the anchor chair still commands a place of importance in constructing the national narrative on important policy issues. It is still a position of significant influence to be the face of the nightly news broadcast on NBC, CBS and ABC. And though bombarded by multiple news sources with the advent of cable television and social media, much of the country still looks upon the broadcast anchors as a gateway to the truth.
What I also see in the Brian Williams saga is our affliction with celebrity. We treat news anchors as celebrities, TV stars and they aim to please. I think Williams got caught up trying to be the story rather than accepting the important responsibility of reporting on events. Television journalists, with the encouragement of their employers, now seek to become a brand and use every opportunity to embellish their personal standing with non-stop access to their fans on Twitter and Facebook, and interjecting themselves in popular culture with appearances on popular entertainment programs. It is hard to trust journalists when on one hand you see them reporting on a serious subject and then see them spinning jokes on the couch on the set of a late night talk show. In some way, the public’s need for a news idol has put the journalist in the unfortunate position of casting a larger than life shadow.
While NBC News is on the hot seat, its parent company, Comcast, has even more at stake. The cable giant is seeking to enlarge its footprint against formidable opposition from unsatisfied consumers and skeptics on Capitol Hill. It cannot afford to carry the weight of Brian Williams’ baggage and may force NBC’s hand in removing the anchor. The other alternative is for Williams to resign, cut his losses and begin the process of rebuilding his credibility.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.