It has been a long time off the air for Brian Williams, the disgraced former news anchor who was suspended for six months in February and is scheduled to step up to the mic again in September for NBC’s cable stepchild, MSNBC. Besides enduring a drop in prestige – from prime-time network anchor to a ratings-challenged news operation – he is taking an undisclosed salary hit, from $10 million a year to “substantially” less, according to reports.
His punishment should have been far worse to match the damage he has done to journalism.
Williams, caught in a lie when he claimed to have been a passenger in a downed helicopter during the Iraq War, broke the first tenet of journalistic ethics by trampling the truth in that claim – and apparently in others that were revealed during a network investigation into his 10 years as the managing editor of “NBC Nightly News.”
Just as the notion of “first do no harm” is identified as the primary ethical mantra of medicine (even though those precise words do not appear in the Hippocratic Oath), the first admonition of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is, “seek truth and report it.” For the most part, journalists who have violated this code in the modern reporting era have paid dearly.
A prime example is found in the first film that I show students in my media ethics course every semester. “Shattered Glass” depicts the real-life story of Stephen Glass. He was a rising star at the New Republic magazine when it was discovered, in the late 1990s, that he had been fabricating stories for the magazine during a three-year period. He made up quotes, created sources and invented situations for more than half of the stories he had published in the magazine and elsewhere.
Glass was summarily dismissed from the New Republic and went on to fictionalize his own career in a novel. After earning a law degree, he is trying to create a career as an attorney. How well he will do remains to be seen. Popular opinion aside, the legal industry also appreciates integrity.
About five years after Glass, reporter Jayson Blair was forced to resign from the New York Times. Editors discovered that, in numerous articles, Blair had fabricated or plagiarized – an ethical violation that accompanies fabrication near the top of the list of journalistic no-nos. This incident also took down Howell Raines, the Times’ executive editor.
Given their respective publications, the Glass and Blair reportage included some major hard-news pieces, from political conventions and profiles (Glass) to sniper terrorism and Iraqi military prisoner rescues (Blair). Their stories could draw national attention, but that’s almost beside the point when it comes to their transgressions. As I tell my students, the small newspapers and broadcast and Internet outlets where they will start their careers rely just as much on truth in reporting and credibility as the major media organizations should.
It isn’t always news that gets people in trouble. A feature story did in the Washington Post’s Janet Cook in 1980. She delivered a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. Her story described in vivid detail the boy’s home and neighborhood, and how he was injected with the drug. It was a compelling piece of writing, but not of reporting, because it was all made up. The transgression cost Cook her job, the Post its Pulitzer and the newspaper – and the profession – a credibility battering.
Williams is now among that infamous lineup, and yet all he suffers is indignity and a pay cut. He comes back as a newscaster for MSNBC as part of an attempt to revive that cable outlet’s ratings. The idea is to beef up the news coverage, supplanting the opinion-driven daytime fare. You have to wonder, though, about the strategy that puts the face of a known fabricator – that’s the nice word for liar – on such an effort.
But more than that, in light of how respected news organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic and others dealt quickly and harshly with their fabricators and plagiarists, you have to question the wisdom of keeping Williams on the payroll at all.
A twofold message is being communicated by this news medium – and I use the phrase loosely considering broadcast news’ emphasis on fluff, celebrity and good looks over news and substance and its steadily decreasing attention to national and international reporting.
One is that NBC executives are applying a different standard of truth and accuracy to their cable news channel than to NBC News.
The other is that broadcast news executives – let alone reporters – who violate the most precious ethical standard of the business will not be sufficiently punished. That is, despite violating their viewers’ trust, they will not be banned from the news operation.
Weep not for Williams in the course of this demotion; rather, cry for the industry that broadcast news pioneer Edward R. Murrow warned long ago was moving in this direction.
Steve Hallock is director of graduate studies for the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.