Columns / Discourse / February 11, 2015

Journalistic ethics: Brian Williams scandal

You had one job, Brian Williams.

The primary goal of a journalist, especially one with your level of esteem, experience and influence, is to tell the truth. How could you mess that up?

***

Brian Williams has come under fire recently for inaccurately reporting on a helicopter that was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Depending on the year Williams talked about the event, the helicopter hit by the RPG was either the one in front of him or the one he was in. If you ask crew members of the helicopter that was hit, Williams wasn’t even at the site until much later.

In an interview with Stars and Stripes, Williams stated, “Because I knew we had all come under fire, I guess I had assumed that all of the airframes took some damage because we all went down.”

Sorry, what?

I’m pretty sure most people remember if grenades shot their helicopters down.

Beyond his botched story on Iraq, Williams is also currently being investigated for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which originally won him countless honors, including a Peabody Award for “journalistic excellence.”

In his coverage, Williams reported that he saw outside of his window “bodies floating” in the floods, gangs breaking into the hotel he stayed in and not getting medical attention or medication after contracting dysentery.

Let’s just look at the first piece of information for now.

Residents of the area, hotel employees, aid workers and fellow journalists have confirmed discrepancies. Dr. Brobson Lutz, who set up an EMS trailer on Dumaine Street, stated, “We were never wet. It was never wet” in an interview with The New Orleans Advocate. Myra DeGersdorff, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton during the hurricane, stated in an interview with The Washington Post, “I witnessed no bodies floating.”

These same two sources, among many others, have also discredited the stories about gangs (of which many don’t recall encountering) and Williams’ alleged contraction of dysentery (of which there were no recorded cases).

I’d keep going, but the amount of contradictory evidence to Williams’ claims is far too great and overwhelming for one column.

***

Williams’ recollections of the events are emotional, full of all the fear and anxiety one would experience in a war zone or natural tragedy. They’re also very descriptive, as he talks about staring “down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us.”

These tales captivate NBC’s readers and viewers, even after they get noticeably different and bigger after every telling.  Some argue this is human, that Williams simply made a mistake. I mean, we’ve all heard the exaggerated stories told by our friends and family members.

The fish your dad caught gets bigger with every recount. Your last breakup was much better or much worse than it actually was. That teacher you had in high school gets meaner with every recollection. I get it, people do “misremember” things.

However, the job of a journalist isn’t to remember what happened (much less “misremember”), but to confirm what happened. They need to have their facts laid out with sources to back those facts up.

If other people can poke holes in your stories, then you’ve messed up, and you have to correct it.

I recently met with USA Today reporter Donna Leinwand Leger, who also covered Hurricane Katrina. She, too, believes that William’s recollections need to be investigated, as his stories don’t match up with hers.

Leger explained that the job of a reporter (especially one covering a crisis) is to tell the “unvarnished truth” with no exaggerations, and if an error is made, it must be corrected as soon, and as visibly, as possible.

Now, the “errors” she was talking about include small details, like the age of a subject or the spelling of a person’s name. These corrections are short passages in the next issue of a newspaper or at the bottom of a web post.

Williams’ errors are much bigger than this. His errors are so much more than misspelled names and off numbers. They’re years old, and they’ll necessitate long editorial apologies, press conferences, interviews, etc.

 According to Leger, “there is no correction big enough for Brian Williams.”

 ***

The question now is whether or not Brian Williams should be fired from NBC, but the answer should be obvious.

Williams is currently facing a six-month suspension without pay as investigations continue, but if he were anyone else at any other news media outlet, he would be done.

Former USA Today reporter and editor Lee Ivory states that reporters at the Shreveport Times, a local paper in Louisiana, were allowed three errors (the same ones Leger talked about) before they were fired, and this practice is not uncommon to find in other national newspapers.

During a class on journalistic ethics, Ivory talked about his former colleague and Pulitzer Prize nominee Jack Kelley, whose career fell as a result of constant lies.

In 2004, an investigation into Kelley’s coverage of international news was largely fabricated. He faked sources, and even sent out emails to people he claimed he interviewed, telling them to act as if they actually spoke to him.

Similar to the way Williams wrote about the bodies floating in the flood, Kelley described seeing heads rolling down the street after a bombing in Israel. Israel’s National Police discredited this poignant image, and it’s unclear whether or not Kelley was even at the scene of the crime.

He resigned from USA Today in 2004, along with editor Karen Jurgensen and managing editor of news Hal Ritter. According to Ivory, no one really knows what happened to him, and I don’t think it matters.

Kelley is in journalistic oblivion, because that’s what happens when journalists lie.

The difference between Williams and Kelley, and the reason Williams hasn’t been officially fired yet, is the difference between broadcast and print news. Due to the audience numbers that Williams brings, and the commercial-based model of revenue that broadcast news companies follow, NBC fears losing a lot of money if they fire their star anchor.

According to the executive director of the American Press Institute Tom Rosenstiel, Brian Williams might actually survive this. If this all happened 10 years ago, when the revenue for broadcast networks were much higher, he definitely would have survived.

Right now, all we can do now is wait and see.

Personally, I think that Williams should go the way of Kelley. He shouldn’t just resign, and NBC shouldn’t just fire him; he should be blacklisted from journalism.

***

Now, say we gave Williams the benefit of the doubt, or at least be more understanding of his situation (if you’ve read up to this point, you’ll understand that this a very difficult thing for me to do).

Maybe the trauma of being near, or inside, a shot down helicopter caused some sort of lapse in memory.

Maybe he did see a body floating near his hotel. There are, in fact, photographs of bodies in the floods, though whether or not Williams personally saw them outside his window is debatable.

Maybe gangs did infiltrate his hotel.

Or maybe he mistakenly conflated individual looters.

Maybe he did contract dysentery.

Or maybe he falsely diagnosed himself as a result of other symptoms.

Each “maybe” is an RPG aimed at Brian Williams’ credibility, and even if he’s telling the truth, the damage is done.

Correction: It was originally written that the three strike rule applied to USA Today. The three strike rule mentioned in this piece actually applies to the Shreveport Times, a local Gannett owned newspaper in Louisiana. USA Today, also owned by Gannett, does not have an official three strike rule, as mistakes are more oftentimes taken case by case.

 

Casey Mendoza
Casey Mendoza is a senior majoring in political science and double minoring in philosophy and Chinese. This is her fourth year working at The Knox Student, previously as a photographer and photo editor. Casey is the recipient of two awards from the Illinois College Press Association for photo essays. During the summer of 2014, Casey also worked as a photography intern for the Galesburg Register-Mail, covering local community events and working alongside award-winning reporters and photojournalists. During the winter and spring of 2015, Casey studied journalism and new media in Washington DC, learning more about the world's political arena, networking and gaining a greater understanding of the field. There, she worked as a Production Assistant at a documentary film company, The Biscuit Factory. During the summer of 2015, Casey will help produce a documentary on airline reservation technology for the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC).

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Casey Mendoza
Casey Mendoza is a senior majoring in political science and double minoring in philosophy and Chinese. This is her fourth year working at The Knox Student, previously as a photographer and photo editor. Casey is the recipient of two awards from the Illinois College Press Association for photo essays. During the summer of 2014, Casey also worked as a photography intern for the Galesburg Register-Mail, covering local community events and working alongside award-winning reporters and photojournalists. During the winter and spring of 2015, Casey studied journalism and new media in Washington DC, learning more about the world's political arena, networking and gaining a greater understanding of the field. There, she worked as a Production Assistant at a documentary film company, The Biscuit Factory. During the summer of 2015, Casey will help produce a documentary on airline reservation technology for the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC).




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