After considerable study, I remain puzzled about one important aspect of the Brian Williams case, but have made up my mind on the bottom line. Williams until very recently was managing editor and anchor for the NBC Nightly News. He now is suspended for six months without pay for making false claims that he was in a helicopter fired on by enemy forces in
Some say the penalty is too harsh; others believe Williams should be fired right now. A few facts have emerged from the discussions:
1. Williams initially (in 2003) correctly reported the helicopter incident in a Nightly News segment.
2. Williams later changed his story during various public appearances, and he lied as he embellished the tale. The false versions make him somewhat of an heroic figure, or at least part of the story rather than merely an observer as a good reporter should be.
3. There is evidence of several other instances in which Williams strayed from the facts in reporting important stories.
4. Williams' employer had no doubt he deserved punishment. NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke called Williams' actions "inexcusable" and said the suspension was "severe and appropriate."
5. Several sociologists and psychologists pointed out that humans tend to have problems with the accuracy of long-term memory and that people who participated in military actions often inflate the importance of their participation. Those views seem credible, but I doubt they are good fits in Williams' situation. It is hard to believe a news reporter with years of experience would fail to clearly recall being shot at in wartime or any other time.
I have grappled with two major questions:
|Good journalist, bad journalist?|
1. What might motivate a person who has risen to the top of his profession to believe it necessary to twist facts to enhance his image? Williams gained his position at NBC Nightly News, the most watched American television news program, ten years ago. A few months ago he signed a new contract for about $10 million a year. Surely, he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and had no need for more material gain.
2. Is it proper to classify Williams as a journalist, or is he more properly an entertainer who uses the public's thirst for news as a self-serving platform to produce large financial gain for himself and his employer?
I can't come up with any good answer to question 1. Only Williams knows his motivation, and he is unlikely to share that knowledge. Question 2 leads to another fundamental consideration: What is a journalist? I propose that a person becomes a journalist in one of three ways:
1. Earning a degree in journalism from an accredited college or university.
2. Working up through the ranks without benefit of formal journalism training, but sometimes aided by advanced education in related fields such as English or political science.
3. Simply claiming to be one. There is no powerful body, such as the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association, that determines who is, or is not, a journalist. In the
U.S., the constitution prohibits
government from making any such determination.
Williams flunks item 1. Following brief enrollments at two universities, he dropped out after completing a total of 18 credits of course work (a little more than one semester's typical achievement). It is unlikely that he completed many, if any, journalism courses that would have included ethics in their material. His biographies I could find omitted any descriptions of exactly what he studied in his brief venture into higher education.
Williams and his employer frequently said he was a journalist, so he makes the grade in item 3. He also qualifies by virtue of item 2 activities. Williams started as a local news broadcaster and steadily worked his way up to the big time and finally the top position at NBC News. So he can claim to be a journalist on the basis of his advancement in news broadcasting over many years.
Why is the journalist question important in Williams' case? Were he merely a talking head reading news actual reporters wrote and editors processed he would not be expected to meet high ethical standards. Most of the beautiful people we see on television news programs have questionable claims to being journalists. They are good at smiling and reading words from teleprompters while striking masculine poses or displaying lots of cleavage and tanned thighs. Williams, of course, did that (the masculine part) on the Nightly News. If that was all he did, I think he could be forgiven for embellishing his war story.
But Williams was more than a pleasant, handsome man serving as news anchor. He also was the show's managing editor. That made him a key decision maker in determining what stories would appear, how they would be presented, and what importance would be assigned to them. That, beyond question, is a journalistic function. That made him a very important person in a position to influence millions in a democracy where success or failure ultimately depends on an informed citizenry. Television is a poor medium for informing people in depth, yet that is where the majority of Americans have been getting their news in recent years.
Granting that Williams can legitimately claim to be a journalist by two measures, we get to the really important question. Was Williams a good journalist?
"Good journalists" voluntarily subscribe to a code of ethics developed by the Society of Professional Journalists, or a similar one adopted by Sigma Delta Chi, a journalism fraternity which I and many of my fellow students joined while in college. However, just as "quacks" attach "M.D." to their names and "shyster" lawyers extract maximum dollars from sometimes unsuspecting clients while producing few benefits in return, some so-called journalists merely give lip service to the tenets of their profession. Unfortunately, the number of disreputable "journalists" seems to be on the rise.
The professional journalist's code is only one page long, but it includes 37 specific items in four categories defining how journalists should conduct themselves in their work. The code outlines a difficult path to follow, but thousands of men and women working in radio, television, and print media have accepted the guidance of the code and many consider it a sacred trust. How did Williams measure up?
The first code category is: "Seek the truth and report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information."
The first specific guidance in that category is: "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible."
As a 19-year-old intern at a small newspaper, I deviated from the code--once. My violation was a fairly minor one; it did not involve dishonesty. Nevertheless, my employer, a journalist respected by all who knew him, told me bluntly and forcefully that if I did not improve my conduct I should pursue a different profession. He later forgave me, and provided financial and moral support as I tried to become an honorable reporter and editor.
I was grateful for the forgiveness and attempted for more than a half century to adhere to the code of ethics of professional journalism. There were numerous temptations to stray, but I think I measured up. Almost all the journalists I worked with or observed in action measured up. NBC now has a bit less than six months to decide whether Williams deserves forgiveness. He is not a teenaged trainee. He had to know what he was doing, and that it was wrong. In my opinion, he clearly does not consider being a professional journalist a sacred trust.
With what we know at the moment about Williams' conduct, he doesn't measure up as a journalist who deserves respect. Many reporters are continuing to delve into details of his performance. That's not surprising. In the accountability section of journalism's code of conduct we find: "Journalists should expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media."
Unless the current media investigations and NBC's analysis turn up some compelling new positive information, Williams' suspension should be made permanent.