Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Journalist, or Just Another Pretty Face?

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 Iraq.

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.


Cliff Fisher said...

Richard, you wrote my thoughts precisely on Brian Williams.

Jhawk23 said...

I appreciate your insights as a journalist on what defines a journalist ... it's not the journalism degree, but a code of integrity, objectivity, and respect for truth. I guess some, even those who once revered and lived by the code, can be misled by too much glory into thinking the code is less important.

Maybe Williams's fall from grace will serve as a useful reminder for some of those coming up behind him who may be similarly tempted.

Duane McGuire said...

Brian who?

Gloria Jensen-Sutton said...

I have some of the same thoughts about the why of Brian's departure from truth. My personal feeling is that his time with the news should be over. He is a pleasant man to look at and to hear, but, heck, hire an actor to read the news. I think he is just done, Dick.

Wally Shiverdecker said...

Too many people just don't realize or care that they are being lied to every day. They appear to be satisfied being entertained.

Gloria Jensen-Sutton said...

I have some of the same thoughts about the why of Brian's departure from truth. My personal feeling is that his time with the news should be over. He is a pleasant man to look at and to hear, but, heck, hire an actor to read the news. I think he is just done, Dick.

Tom Sightings said...

A lot of people embellish stories, inflate their roles, and otherwise manipulate accounts to impress people or make a good story even better. But as you suggest, a key part of being a journalist is to resist that temptation and report the facts. (Then there's the issue of bending or selecting the facts to slant a story to fit your political leanings; but that's a different issue.) Anyway. Williams is only human ... but he broke the trust, and so he should go for good.

Kay said...

Gosh, Dick! Brian used to be my favorite anchor. This entire scandal really blew me away. I still can hardly believe it. He looked so honest. I kept thinking it was all a mistake. Your excellent post clarifies a lot of my muddled thinking.

Gloria Jensen-Sutton said...

I am having some other thoughts and musings about reporting versus story telling. I'm a pretty good story teller myself, but when I write reports--usually about individuals' capacities--it better not be story telling. I am thinking about how the lines between story telling and reporting get blurred.

Sometimes, to make a news item more intriguing/shocking/horrifying/salacious, elements of story telling are used. That's O.K. until the elements are fabrications befitting a story- telling audience and NOT a news audience. I love reading The Onion sometimes, and Mad Magazine, but I know they are story-telling venues.

Anonymous said...

I don't like anything on NBC or MSNBC. Most nights, I watch Gwen Iffell and Hari Shrinasvasen on the PBS news hour. Sometimes we watch Fox, but only if David is in the room. I like Wolf Blitzer on CNN most of the time.

PiedType said...

For quite a while after the story broke, I was not convinced Williams was deliberately lying about the helicopter. After all, he reported it accurately on the air. It was only later, during appearances where he was not acting as a reporter, that the facts became exaggerated to his benefit.

Since then, a lot of other stories have emerged -- riding with SEAL Team 6, being given a piece of a top secret helicopter, being given a military knife, visiting with the Pope. To my knowledge, none of these stories was reported from his anchor desk in his role as a journalist.

I'm still inclined to think his exaggerations and/or fables were all "war stories" intended, consciously or unconsciously, to inflate his celebrity status. And while he may not have actually reported these events as news, their becoming public knowledge has destroyed his credibility as a journalist (in my opinion).

I don't know what he'll do next, or where, but I think his days as a credible journalist are over. All the mea culpas in the world won't change the public's opinion of him. (Of course, I said that about Dan Rather, and he's still hanging around here and there.)

Alan G said...

This is a great piece Dick and I am glad you took the time to sit down and share your thoughts on the subject. Perhaps initially I was quick to judge but once a journalist’s integrity comes into question, he or she gets their name lined through on my list but I feel certain at this point my judgment was justified. I can always appreciate a measure of opinion but I expect it to be based on truths, not some resemblance to the truth. I look to these individuals for my source of the truth and nothing but the truth whether it’s on the airways or on the page.
Being a layman with regards to the field of journalism but certainly admiring the profession, it has been for me over the years a continued learning experience. At first these individuals were all lumped together in my mind… journalist, reporter, correspondent or television anchor - one in the same. Of course over the years I have learned much to the contrary.
I think Mr. Williams, however good he may be at his job of network television anchor, suffers from a serious case of correspondent envy. I think he may feel and even realize that even though he certainly has a high paying job for reading the news off the page, his peers and others don’t view him as one of the “boots on the ground” gang. Perhaps he feels a little embellishing here will help establish a bit of the John Wayne aurora for him.

Anonymous said...

This story has reached this side of 'the pond', although I doubt if many Brits had ever heard of this man before.
It's a bit like those people who wear military medals they never earned. I can't judge him as a journalist, but, on the face of it, I find his behaviour pathetic.

Marc Leavitt said...


Good post. Integrity is like virginity: once you lose it, you can't get it back.
IfI were still mkanaging editor of my paper, and he worked for me, he'd be gone in a heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

Bob Simon was a true journalist sadly he lost his life not too long ago..Too bad the brouhaha over Williams overshadows the loss to journalism Bob Simon did in his many years at CBS and 60 minutes now there was a journalist and a gentleman..My goodness sakes alive Lester Holt will get Williams job and all for the better!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jon W said...

This is excellent analysis of the issue in general. As you say, most people get their news from television, which is dangerous. I do not believe people are dumb but they are taught dumb things. I would never do such a thing (we engineers have strong ethical guidelines as well) and due to the general ramifications, I think a major setback in his career is an appropriate consequence.