Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Gene Policinski: Mr. Williams – trust me, many feel your ‘pain’

  Whatever happens to Brian Williams, another gut punch has been thrown to the collective body of work known as “journalism.”

  The NBC News anchor is now on hiatus from “Nightly News” and has decided against a reprise appearance later this week on the David Letterman show. He’s also slowly twisting in the now-familiar social media wind of online scrutiny, satire and dissection.

  The accuracy of Williams’s tales of personal experiences while reporting during combat in Iraq and later, other news events including Hurricane Katrina, have been challenged publicly in recent days. Of particular interest: his oft-repeated claim of being in a helicopter in 2003 that came under enemy fire in Iraq, most elaborately told on the Letterman show in 2013. Williams now says those accounts was mistaken recollections, and NBC itself is now investigating a number of Williams’s stories.

  On Saturday, in a memo to NBC News staff, Williams said, “In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”

  Trust me, Mr. Williams — and I am aware of the irony of those words — anyone who believes in a free press and good journalism shares your pain.

  The America you have been speaking to Monday through Friday since 2004, through an anchor chair on a medium that still reaches more people than anything else, already doubted how well journalists of all mediums do their job.

  Year after year since the annual survey began in 1997, the State of the First Amendment sampling conducted by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center has shown that a majority of our fellow citizens say the news media is unable to report the news without bias.

  From an all-time high of 76 percent in 2011, the bias rating had actually dipped a good bit, to 52 percent in 2013 and 55 percent in 2014.  But that was before you “conflated.”

  In the same 2014 survey, asked to select among various definitions of a journalist, just 36 percent said it was “someone who creates stories based on objective fact.”  Not good news for an industry that claims to hold “objectivity” as both a goal and technique.

  Granted, Williams’s anecdotal transgressions — whether major or minor — are about his personal integrity, differing from the distressing pattern of high-profile reporters found to be falsifying news reports over the last 20 years at organizations ranging from The New York Times to USA Today to The New Republic to CBS News to The Washington Post.

  Williams’s particular situation is bringing out unexpected defenders, says the Los Angeles Times, which in a story Sunday reported that Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly recently told viewers the anchor’s blunder of telling a detailed — and apparently, very erroneous account of his Iraqi experience — on Letterman’s late-night talk show “could be attributed to the pressure to ‘be cool’ in front of a hip talk show audience that doesn’t watch the news” … where “truth becomes secondary in such situations.”

  There’s the problem — truth becoming secondary. Through the centuries, the news media has been many things: journals of opinion, gossips, locally focused, national voices, rumormongers and ready conveyors of “news you can use.”

  Throughout it all, though, there has been an implicit expectation — and, as assigned by the Founders of the nation, a ultimate duty assigned by virtue of the First Amendment — to bring us the news and information that drives democracy, through the means of multiple, unfettered sources that each of us is free to sort, sift and judge.

  A bit of irony is that the unprecedented ability of us all to “sort and sift” is the very tool by which Williams is being “judged.” Web-based critics of his Iraqi desert ordeal-in-the-skies were able to reach critical mass after online accounts of yet another of his retellings, of all things at a NHL game where he was saluting a combat veteran.

  Journalism has survived worse, of course. In 2003, The New York Times was rocked by discovery that rising correspondent Jayson Blair had fabricated reports. Two top editors resigned, and it took a team of 28 people to track down the damage. But the paper continues to be a stalwart source of news worldwide.

  In 2004, Gallup reported that the public’s trust in the media tumbled to its lowest point in three decades, in the week after CBS News and then-anchor Dan Rather apparently relied on a bogus document in a negative report on President George W. Bush’s military service record.  Rather’s career took a hit, but he’s since found his news footing again and CBS News is proudly boasting of its accuracy in reporting.

  At USA Today, in that same year, editors apologized to its readers after a lengthy investigation revealed “numerous flawed stories published under the byline of Jack Kelley, a veteran of 20 years with the paper,” one of the investigators wrote. In 1981, The Washington Post returned a Pulitzer Prize two days after it was awarded, disclosing that writer Janet Cooke had fabricated her gripping account of an 8-year old heroin addict. Both papers are thriving today, in part because of better controls on content that resulted from those failures of trust.

  If media accounts in the past few days are accurate (ouch!), those scandals do have one thing in common with the Williams flap: All had internal critics who warned about accuracy and truthfulness long before disclosure and disgrace.

  For some, that sin of omission — failing to heed internal critics — is as serious as the miscreants’ sins of commission.  Whether dazzled by star-standing or motivated by the venality of simply protecting ratings or preserving profits and reputation, failure to act ought not to go uninvestigated or unpunished.

  So let NBC’s internal investigation commence — as will, no doubt, the online critics and the cable newshounds also on the case. One bright spot is that looking over the myriad of scandals in memory in business, academia, government and media, there’s only one profession that washes its own dirty laundry in public — even when it means hanging icons or favorite sons out to dry.

  For all the carping and criticism, the public still holds out hope for the news media it wants — even if it distrusts the one it now has. Last year, as more than half of us said we find bias in the news reports we see, three-fourths of us said “it is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government.”

  A role, it would seem, that’s equally important when one of its own is in the doghouse.

  About the author: Gene Policinski is Chief Operating Officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski[at]

  This article was published by the Newseum Institute.

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