Reporter's Notebook

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Journalists Do Good Work Until They Don’t?

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Brian Williams

The flap with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is not unique to Brian Williams, to broadcasting or to the 4th Estate.  The halls of journalism are littered with pockmarks from shots taken at reporters for not upholding the standards to which they supposedly pledge themselves.  Cast your memory back a few short weeks and it was CBS 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan and questions not only over her reporting of a 2013 story on the US Embassy attack in Benghazi but her return to on-air reporting at the network.

About Williams, he claimed more than 10 years ago that he was in the second of four helicopters that was attacked in Iraq.  That seems to be mostly true.  The question is how it was attacked.  When he first told the story, he said the lead chopper was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade but both were taking small arms fire.  Over the years (and masterfully explained by NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/05/384119679/brian-williams-criticized-for-exaggerated-iraq-story) the story changed to William’s chopper being the one that was hit by the RPG.

Brian Williams has been sitting in the NBC anchor chair since 2004.  He began his career in 1981 at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Ks.  From there, he worked at WTTG in Washington, DC, then WCAU in Philadelphia.  In 1987, he began broadcasting from WCBS in New York where he remained until 1993 when he joined NBC News.  Wikipedia says he anchored the Weekend Nightly News and was chief White House correspondent before serving as anchor and managing editor of the News with Brian Williams, also broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC.  His career has been extensive and his climb up the network ladder has been long.

But this is in no way a defense of Mr. Williams, Ms. Logan or any journalist that has gotten sloppy.  And that seems to be what has really happened here.  Whether it’s a refusal to do the deep checking a complex story requires, or a subtle need to “be the story” rather than just report on the story, sloppiness is the result.  Back in the day, it was harder to fact check the details of blockbuster stories because those resources weren’t as available to the general public and there was no venue for the public to say a reporter had gotten it wrong. But in the 70s and 80s, the subjects started fighting back.

Remember ABC vs. “Food Lion”, NBC and the exploding gas tank of the General Motors pickup and CBS vs. General William Westmorland?  Since then, with the advent of social media and the taste of blood increasingly on everyones tongue, no iota of information goes free from scrutiny for reasons that range from payback to schadenfreude.

In some ways, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, Uncle Walter and the untainted others hang like the Sword of Damocles over every modern journalist, as well they should and here’s why.  Former CBS Executive Sam Roberts told Folkenflik these incidents fuel a public already skeptical about media reporting. “Oh you guys just make it up,” Roberts said. [People will say] “See I told you.  Look at what Brian Williams did.  We’re going to hear that over and over from people who are skeptical about the media”.

All a reporter has is his or her ability to tell stories and his ability to convince people to believe them.  Once that is gone, they are no longer a reporter.  Society is quick to take that away.  But reporters tend to be harder on each other regarding this kind of thing than the general public, maybe because of what Mr. Roberts told Mr. Folkenflik.  These incidents only make it harder for us to do our jobs.  Thanks, Brah.

But I certainly appreciate forgiveness and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t.  People make mistakes and, oddly, some of those same people aren’t very forgiving of the mistakes of others.  Journalism is human recipe of storytelling fact and fiction.  And journalists are a social construction of gumshoe and celebrity.  Absolutely every reporter is subject to getting a fact wrong or embellishing a story a little too much.  Because they have a mouthpiece most others don’t, they do have a special responsibility to do everything they can to tell the transparent truth.  When they make honest mistakes, they need to own up to them quickly.  And everybody, audience and reporters, need to remember their hard work over the years before we kick them to curb for not being perfect, as so few of us are.

It reminds me of an episode of the hit TV show, “Scrubs”.  Chief in Interns, Dr. Percy Cox is telling the residents, including J.D. Dorian “Each and every one of you is going to kill a patient. At some point during your residency you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your conscience forever.”

The pep talk continues …

“The point is, the harder you study, the longer you just might be able to hold off that first kill. Other than that, I guess cross your fingers and hope that the guy you murder is a jackass with no family. Great to see you kids. All the best!”

Journalism can be like that.

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