OPINION: Brian Williams Affair is a Teachable Moment

NBC Brian Williams (1)

By Jerome Aumente
Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information

Brian Williams, who has fallen from his lofty perch at NBC Nightly News as the nation’s most watched news anchor will know by August whether his six month suspension for fabricating details about his Iraq war experiences marks his return to the air waves or a tragic end to his career.

The suspension cost him dearly:  $5 million dollars, half of his $10 million dollar annual salary (part of a five year, $50 million contract he had only recently signed with NBC). More importantly it severely damaged his journalistic credibility—the oxygen the news media breathe to survive.

Money aside, his long journey from obscure, small television stations to the loftiest position in the United States television news hierarchy is a tale of Horatio Alger gone wrong— the needless squandering of a reputation because of untrue, unnecessary embellishments to his reporting career. His ride in a military helicopter during the Iraq war in 2003 was dramatic enough without his adding the untrue claim that it was struck by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and forced to land.

As he now confers with a close circle of advisors on  how to best spend the six month suspension in ways that can restore his tarnished reputation the tragedy presents  “teachable moments” for journalists, educators and the general public puzzling over what this all means.

There is much that can be salvaged from this sad situation. While Williams has ample detractors, there are many who also are rooting for his successful return to the airwaves by the Fall.  His decades-long career is marked by solid reporting and anchoring, delivered in a plain spoken, humane yet authoritative way that won him millions of viewers and made him number one among the competing national news networks.

Williams’ boss, Steve Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal , said in announcing the suspension:  “This has been a painful period for all concerned and we appreciate your patience while we gathered the available facts. By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate. Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”

Over the years, I have conducted numerous programs for international journalists visiting the United States. One of our most valuable stops was at NBC where we held substantive discussions with correspondents, editing staff and top administrators of the news. These in-depth, candid discussions only reinforce my understanding of how hurtful the Williams missteps have been to the NBC news staff who pride themselves in meeting the highest professional standards of ethical journalists.

 

As for the “teachable” moments, let’s examine a few possibilities:

The circumstances of his tragic downfall are sparking needed review and soul searching among the print, broadcast and digital news media and journalism educators. Are current ethical codes sufficient to prevent this from happening again? Most disasters, whether a catastrophic Gulf oil spill or journalistic malfeasance, require close examination and policy changes to prevent their happening again.

Williams sought an Indiana Jones swash buckling image when a staid Walter Cronkite approach might have served him better. Williams took to numerous late night talk shows and other forums to boast about his dangerous exploits and in the retelling left a trail of dubious claims that are now undergoing microscopic evaluation by NBC. The findings will decide if he can return to the network.  Besides the Iraqi half- truths, his other alleged claims about dangerous personal encounters covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are under challenge.

When the findings are disclosed journalists and the general public must decide if they justify redemption and forgiveness, or banishment. At the very least, they remind us that news anchors have a special responsibility as managing editors to be trusted guides of the evening news menu. The anchors are under tremendous pressure to gild their images in the endless race for the highest audience ratings, and it may be time to shout “enough”. Just give us the news without the happy talk, the claims of derring-do exploits, false patriotism and a craven appeal to younger audiences just to satisfy advertiser desires for high target advertising demographics.

The daily audience for the national evening news is still about 27 million with the big three–NBC, ABC and CBS— garnering eight to nine million each, and with advertising revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But the audience is half what it was just a few decades ago. The Internet has reshaped the media landscape with traditional news media experiencing drastic change. The speed of the Williams downfall was stunning— about a week after former American helicopter crew members took to Internet social networks to challenge Williams’s version of the events, the NBC anchor apologized on the air, and a few days later was suspended.

A” teachable” moment for  students and teachers of the media in schools and universities will be to examine the Williams situation closely, and use it as an entryway into a broader discussion of  what we require of quality news media; better use of the power of the Internet and social networks to expose improprieties, and  how to engage  citizens in a national dialogue  over  what they expect of their news outlets, both the traditional “legacy” media such as the TV networks or major newspapers and the flood  of newly emerging Internet websites.

As for Brian Williams, how he chooses to spend his six months suspension presents some intriguing possibilities. It will require more than a single shot ,“mea culpa”  television appearance. What if he set off on a journey to town hall forums, schools, colleges and universities throughout the United States and engaged in frank, open discussions about what he did, what lessons he has learned from all of this, and most importantly, how we can use his extensive knowledge of the field to make things better for future journalism?

He could do this in personal appearances and also by harnessing the power of the Internet via Skype and other online discussion outlets to engage millions of people in the United States and worldwide in the broader conversation of what this flood of news and information is all about, and how it can better foster media literacy and healthier, informed media consumption.

In simple terms, we all live down river from this torrent of news and information pouring from our laptops, desktops, tablets and increasingly our smart phones.  We must demand higher standards and ethical performance by journalists entrusted to gather, process and distribute news regardless of the platform. If we can learn to better identify the sources of news pollution, both large and small, then as informed consumers we are all healthier and better off.

 

Jerome Aumente is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. He was founding chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies and founding director of the Journalism Resources Institute. The JRI has offered training and programs to thousands of journalists in the United States and overseas. Professor Aumente has been overseas more than two hundred times conducting journalism programs.  He can be reached at e-mail: aumente@rutgers.edu .

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