Saturday, February 14, 2015

Brian Williams

Not that long ago, I worked in journalism. I worked for a newspaper, and before that a different newspaper, and before that (skipping over a stint at Sears) I was a journalism student in college. Although it hasn't come up that much in my professional career (I mostly did layout and copy editing, with some reporting thrown in), I remember vividly a class on ethics in journalism. Although it placed an unswerving focus on telling the truth, most situations are more complex than doing just that. Ultimately, the point of the class was that each of us has to make our own calls; there are very few hard-and-fast rules in ethical reporting.

And that's part of why I feel more than a little defensive of Brian Williams, the embattled face of NBC's news division. Unlike, I think, most of his ersatz detractors on the Internet, I actually watch his program with fair regularity and have for years. (Full disclosure: I'm subtracting out the years where I couldn't afford cable and lived in locations where antenna reception wasn't possible.) I saw the broadcast that got him in so much trouble, and I saw it live. And I don't think he should lose his job over it.

Let's cut to the chase and assume the worst is possible, as NBC has already done by putting Williams on a six-month suspension. The report in question was about him reuniting with a veteran he'd previously met on active duty in Iraq. Most of the report was Williams thanking this man, and there was video of the two of them appearing at a sporting event together. The part that may end up costing Williams his job: He claims to have been in a helicopter that was hit by rocket fire. Members of the military chimed in and said they remembered it differently. In a recanting of the story that aired a few days later (which I also saw live), Williams said it was a helicopter ahead of his. This too is being challenged. The truth or something like it will probably out eventually.

To assume the worst is to assume that Williams lied deliberately to make his participation in the event seem more exciting. (To be clear, this is an assumption; Williams maintains it was a mistake as of this writing, to the best of my knowledge.) So what?

Whether deliberate or accidental, this is a grave lapse in journalistic rigor. However, if one scrutinizes it based on ethics, it's virtually meaningless. The worst-case scenario, based on current available facts, is that Brian Williams juiced up the backstory for a news piece about honoring a veteran.

For context, the last major scandal in network news was "Memogate," which destroyed Dan Rather's career in 2004. Memogate started with a piece on CBS' 60 Minutes in which longtime news anchor Rather presented a series of documents purporting to show that then-President George W. Bush had been a substandard member of the Air National Guard in the 1970s. The problem was that the documents were almost obviously fake (click the link and you'll be taken to the relevant Wikipedia article, where a two-frame GIF shows how the purportedly vintage documents clearly use the same default settings as Microsoft Word.)

Rather got fired for failing to research a very big story, which in my book is the best reason to fire a journalist. The piece was aired less than two months before the 2004 election and cast aspersions on the character of a sitting president - those are extremely high stakes, and they weren't treated with proper caution. Right now, the charges against Williams are much less significant. He wasn't trying to take on a world leader. He was, at worst, trying to make himself look too significant in a story about somebody else.

I might feel defensive, but I'm not defending Williams; what he did was wrong. That's a question of what kind and how much, distinctions that matter a lot. However, even if it's concluded that the error was deliberate, I don't think Williams should lose his job for this. Making yourself seem closer to the action in a war story is a far cry from trying to bring down a president.

If you've read this far, please consider reading this article - from improbable hard news bastion Cracked - that discusses the subject further.

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